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Veteran hiking across America passes through Knox County

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William Shuttleworth

William Shuttleworth, 71, of Massachusetts, takes a detour from his hike across the U.S. to walk across Brinkhaven's historic Bridge of Dreams.

BRINKHAVEN – America’s most prominent – and patriotic – pedestrian crossed into Knox County on Thursday.

William Shuttleworth, 71, is walking across the United States, from Massachusetts to California, in an effort to spread awareness and raise money for issues concerning veterans. He has established a website and a Go Fund Me account titled “Vets Don’t Forget Vets,” where all funds will go towards the Disabled American Veterans Association. He’s made national news, having been interviewed by MSN, Fox News and myriad other media entities during his trek.

Shuttleworth has been on the road since May 15, and is over 700 miles into his journey. Traveling on Route 62, he crossed into Knox County from Holmes County around 3 p.m. Thursday, with temperatures peaking near 80 degrees. He was wrapping up a 38-mile day – typical as of late – when he spoke with Knox Pages near Brinkhaven’s Bridge of Dreams.

“I don’t believe I’ve seen prettier country in the world than Holmes County, and now I’m in Knox County. That’s very beautiful because [there were] a lot of lowlands coming in, with beautiful birds,” said Shuttleworth, sporting a sun-baked tan and a thick Boston accent. “The Amish country’s just breathtaking. I heard it was the number one tourist attraction in the state of Ohio. I can see why.”

Shuttleworth’s goal is simple: to have “as many conversations as possible and [listen] to anybody who would like to talk to me about their experiences or thoughts about how we can improve services for veterans.” He does this at diners, coffee shops, and on the side of the road. He believes that veterans in America deserve better care, and he wants his journey to start conversations that could spark policy change at the Congressional level.

“I want to be very approachable on this, and gain the wisdom and begin to have this collective coalition, this grassroots coalition, coast to coast – people holding hands to say, ‘We are going to demand that Congress provide better services to veterans,'” Shuttleworth said. “I want this to be the first step. I wanted to know what America’s pulse was and what their belief system was before I engaged elected officials.”

Shuttleworth, who served in the Air Force from 1970-1975, said he is particularly concerned with veteran suicide rates, as well as high rates of homelessness and drug addiction. He wants to end veteran homelessness by 2030 – “it can be done if we want it done” – and he wants free medical care for any veteran who was ever drafted and received an honorable discharge.

He also wants guaranteed medical and mental health treatment for all veterans within 30 days of service, and he wants to increase starting pay for enlisted military members to a ‘liveable wage.’ In addition, Shuttleworth wants more veterans in Congress.

“We’ve gotta do whatever we can to keep the energy and focus on veterans,” Shuttleworth told a Washington, D.C. radio station as he perused Mohican Valley Trail on Thursday. “And as people my age start dying out, there’s going to be a gap between the Middle-East veterans and us, so we have to pick up that pace.”

Since Shuttleworth left his hometown of Newburyport, MA (30 miles north of Boston) last month, he has raised over $37,000 for the Disabled American Veterans Association. He is well on his way toward his $100,000 goal, which he hopes to meet by the time he reaches his final destination: Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, CA. If he keeps up this pace, he expects to arrive there by Halloween.

While he is willing to talk about veteran care to anyone who will listen, Shuttleworth said he never envisioned his mission gaining this much attention.

“I thought was going to be a lowkey thing, but it turned into a national event,” he said. “I have become the most famous pedestrian in America without even wanting to be.”

How he’s doing it: eggs and cheese, nightly phone calls, and ‘Will’ power

The decision to walk across the country – over 3,000 miles in total – became clear for Shuttleworth last summer.

He was running a camp at a California state park, halfway between where his two sons live. Shuttleworth had 58 slots for potential camp-goers, and he made sure to keep three open at all times for homeless participants, due to the area’s large transient population. What he saw, however, caught his attention: “almost all of them were veterans.”

“Sitting at my picnic table, drinking coffee, every day and every night I heard the same stories,” Shuttleworth recalled. “They were suicidal, they were unemployed, they had no hope, they got the rigamarole and the run-around by Veterans Affairs and veterans services, and they had just quit life.”

Shuttleworth came back to Massachusetts after the seven-month camp, having heard hundreds of homeless veterans tell similar stories. He wanted to spark a change.

But how could he, an everyday man from a small coastal town, make a difference? He found the answer in his daily fitness routine.

“I walk 20 miles a day,” said Shuttleworth, now retired from a 35-year career as a superintendent, psychologist and college professor. “And that’s what I told my wife. I said, ‘Honey, instead of walking 20 miles in a circle around Newburyport… all I’m thinking about is making a difference in life.’ And I said, ‘Why not walk in a straight line and actually accomplish something that could be quite meaningful to America?’ And that’s what I did.”

Shuttleworth is more than three weeks into his journey, and he said his daily routine goes a little like this:

He wakes up every day at 5 a.m. He often tries to have breakfast at a local diner – on Thursday, he filled up in Winesburg (Holmes County) before hitting the road. There, he tries to talk to as many people as possible about the needs of veterans.

“I oftentimes say that if we could harness the wisdom that’s inside the diner, we wouldn’t need Congress,” Shuttleworth said. “They’re usually fairly conservative, they’re usually very well-informed, they want people to have the same slice of the American pie that they had. They’re thoughtful, they’re inclusive. Congress should go there and talk to these people and listen to them. They’re wonderful people.”

Then he straps on his backpack, which holds his tent (only two pounds), sleeping bag, two t-shirts and other daily essentials, and hits the road. Shuttleworth said people will often walk with him for a few miles at a time; they see his backpack, with three American flags sticking out and his website on the back, and recognize him from television. Shuttleworth purposefully does not wear headphones so that he can have as many conversations as possible.

Around 4 p.m. each day, he’ll stop somewhere to have dinner. Then he’ll keep walking for three hours through the cool evening air, until he finds a suitable place to pitch his tent for the night.

Shuttleworth typically sleeps behind churches, parks, schools, or public buildings. Sometimes, however, local residents will offer him a place to stay. This happened Thursday, when a woman from Danville saw Shuttleworth walking on Route 62 just inside the Knox County line. She offered him a place to stay for the night, and he gladly obliged.

Shuttleworth plans to continue down Route 62 on Friday, inching his way closer to Columbus, where his niece lives. He plans on spending a day with her once he gets there; he’ll also send back his sleeping bag back to Massachusetts at that time, given the blazing temperatures ahead, and will pick up a new pair of shoes his wife sent him.

Shuttleworth has been wearing the same pair of red and black Altra running shoes since he left last month, and he plans to exchange for a new pair every 500 miles to keep his feet healthy.

Shuttleworth admitted that the first leg of his trip has been a learning process. He is struggling to stay hydrated and consume enough calories, he said, “even though it seems like I’m eating all the time.”

“My doctor, who advised me about this walk, calculated that when you carry a 25-pound pack at a four-mile-an-hour clip, you burn 500 calories an hour,” Shuttleworth said. “So yesterday, I walked 14 hours. That’s 7,000 calories. You almost can’t eat that much.”

Shuttleworth is a vegetarian, and he said it’s been difficult to acquire enough daily calories through a plant-based diet. Eggs and cheese have become a staple dish, Shuttleworth said, as well as anything else packed with protein.

“I only weigh 145 [pounds], so I can’t afford to lose too much more,” said Shuttleworth, who has already lost seven pounds during his trip. “[But] I think it’s going to reach a certain set point, where you’re not going to lose any more.”

Developing a daily routine has been key to Shuttleworth’s well-being. He calls his wife, Patty, every night. She has supported him from the start, he said.

“My wife is my biggest fan. She knew that this has been brewing inside of me, that I wanted to make a difference,” Shuttleworth said. “She’ll tell you if you talk to her, she would say that if any man in America could do this, it would be her husband. I have great will. I was well-named ‘Will.’”

More than anything, though, Shuttleworth is fueled by the stories he’s heard along the way. Veterans have weeped while telling Shuttleworth about their military experiences; seeing his determination to fight for their cause, men and women have opened up about the effects of war.

“The pain of enduring battle never goes away,” Shuttleworth said. “To me, I guess I capture it like [when] you drop an egg. You might be able to glue that egg back together again, but it will never be quite the same.”

He’s also learned about how war has affected the families of those serving. He’s heard stories about the hardships of constantly relocating and wondering what’s next.

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Shuttleworth does get lonely sometimes, he said. When it’s just him and the pavement, and the only thing he can see ahead of him is pouring down rain, he sometimes questions whether it’s all worth it. But then he thinks back to the people he’s met – and the stories he’s heard – and he finds the strength to keep going.

“You know, one person can make a difference. When I hear people tell me that they’re giving up, and that there’s no hope, that’s faulty thinking. Everybody has the personal ability to make a difference in their life,” Shuttleworth said.

“It’s much like dropping a stone in the pond. That ripple effect is contagious and sooner or later, it begins to have great momentum, and people catch that energy. One of the things I think I’m trying to do is ignite that spirit that lies dormant in a lot of Americans.”

The road ahead

As he took a break Thursday, sipping from a bottle of water under the Mohican Valley shade, Shuttleworth admitted that the toughest days of his journey lay ahead.

He’ll hit Kansas near the end of summer, when the sun beats down relentlessly on America’s Great Plains. When he reaches Colorado, he’ll have to find a way to get around the Rockies – “I might call an Uber for that,” he joked. Every step of the way, he’ll have to figure it out himself. Unlike many cross-country visionaries, he said, there is no entourage behind him.

But Shuttleworth is built for this. He once ran the Boston Marathon in 91-degree heat. Over his last 30 years of work, he never missed a day. Instead of getting headaches, his wife humorously says he causes them.

At the age of 71, Shuttleworth considers this a “spiritual journey.” The ripple effect has motivated him; it’s been far more impactful than he ever could have imagined.

“I didn’t realize it would provide so much healing to people,” Shuttleworth said.

At the same time, this journey has also met some of Shuttleworth’s initial expectations.

“I’ve been listening a lot more than I’ve been talking. I wanted that. I wanted the opportunity to really touch people’s lives and to experience that, and I’m grateful that I have,” he said. “I guess I also wanted the challenge. I wanted to know whether or not a man my age has the health, the mental will, the resilience and the resolve to do something of this nature for veterans.

“I think that if I accomplish this, and when I accomplish it, it will be a strong statement to veterans that I was there for them.”

Shuttleworth will be traveling south on Route 62 Friday, and given his average of 30 miles per day, should end up near Johnstown by nightfall. He said people are welcome to honk, wave, or stop and share their stories with him as he walks. Most importantly, however, he hopes people will consider donating to his cause, as all dollars will go towards helping veterans.

“I think one of the greatest things that they can do is to help me achieve my $100,000 goal for disabled American veterans, as a strong statement that common, ordinary Americans are standing behind – whether that’s $5 or $5,000 – they want veterans to be taken care of,” Shuttleworth said.

The energy on this trek has been reciprocal, Shuttleworth said. The Massachusetts journeyman has been inspired by the people he's met, and he hopes to have returned the favor.

“I think everybody wants to aspire, or to be part of something a little bit higher than they have ever reached,” he said. “It also has caused people to deal with their fears by saying, ‘Are you afraid you’re going to be beaten up? Are you afraid you’re going to get abandoned? Are you afraid you’re going to get run over?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not afraid. I’m fearless.’

“I told my own kids that everything you ever want to accomplish in life is on the other side of fear. And once you abandon fear, you can accomplish anything.”