By Stephen Burnett
Iraq war veteran Troy Yocum made headlines two years ago when he started in Louisville what would become a 16-month, 7,880-mile walk across the United States to raise awareness (and $1.3 million) to help military families. Today, the Kentucky native is still helping military families, this time through a new organization he started just a few months ago: Active Heroes.
“We have so many dedicated active heroes, literally,” Yocum said.
Thanks to partner charities and 700 fundraising volunteers, the new organization is off on to a quick start. One veteran has begun a hike of the Appalachian Trail, and others are riding horses, motorcycles or bicycles.
Meanwhile, the organization is busy planning its Memory Miles event, from Armed Forces Day on May 19 to Thursday, May 31, after Memorial Day. Its mission: to allow anyone to take action and raise funds for veterans. On the group’s website, anyone can set up a new page with personal information about an event and spread the word through email and social media.
Yocum quoted the organization’s slogan: “‘Be a hero. Help a hero.’” He added that he’s grateful that his famous walk — much of it along with the woman who became his wife, Mareike Yocum — has helped bring this effort about. “The walk across America really inspired people.”
Understanding the struggles
Troy Yocum’s grandfather, Joseph Leake, was also a veteran who served during World War II. He had returned home and managed to re-enter civilian life, at least for a few decades.
Then in 1980, after Leake lost his job, he shot and killed himself.
“I grew up not understanding the reasons for that a whole lot,” Yocum said.
Only after his own military service during the Iraq conflict did Yocum begin to understand the struggles better.
“I signed on Aug. 21, 2001, just about three weeks before 9/11,” he said. He first committed to the National Guard and was transferred into the Army’s Ready Reserve. Then the 442nd Reserve unit picked him up, and Yocum was deployed to active duty in Iraq.
“I’ve always been Army,” he said. “My last rank was specialist. I went to Kuwait. We were stationed at Camp Virginia.” Almost every day Yocum and others would drive across the border into Iraq.
People frequently say “war is hell.” But sometimes coming home from war is even worse. For Yocum, he returned to the United States in August of 2009 and began to identify with other’s struggles not long after.
“You lose the camaraderie of having your battle buddies next to you all the time,” he explained. “You have to come back and try to live a normal civilian life. And some soldiers can’t do it so well. I would say it’s not anybody’s fault. What are you going to do when the unemployment rate is the highest it’s ever been? We’re basically going through another depression.”
During his walk, Yocum saw back roads and small towns where the effects are felt, much more so than in cities such as Lexington or Louisville. “So many towns are a wasteland.”
Even in the absence of a struggling economy, it can be difficult for a veteran trying to find a job and fit in. Many of Yocum’s friends were unable to find work; the unemployment rate for veterans is nearly triple the national unemployment rate. They were forced either to re-sign their military contracts or try to find jobs elsewhere. Families applied for financial assistance.
In such environments, veterans often question their own worth and mission. Some may turn to drug and alcohol abuse, Yocum said. And post-traumatic stress disorder seems commonplace. The years 2007 to 2009 set record levels of veteran suicides. Now, attempting to escape the pain, 18 veterans a day commit suicide, Yocum said. “We’re losing more to suicide than we lost total to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.”
Yocum has volunteered for several charities, including the one for which he walked more than 7,000 miles for the journey he called “Hike for Heroes.”
“On April 17, 2010, I left my starting line, which was Louisville Slugger Museum,” he recalled. “I asked my wife to marry me on the hike, at Keeneland, and we started making our plans to get married while we came through Lexington. … It rained that whole two weeks. It just constantly rained and rained and rained.”
On the 264th day of the hike, the couple married, and Mareike Yocum took to driving, following her husband’s progress as he walked 15 miles more each day.
“I walked all the way west first, to San Diego,” he continued. “Then I walked all the way down to San Antonio, all the way across the New York City, Boston and then back to Louisville.”
On the way, he suffered kidney stones and an infected foot, to the point that in early 2011, his sponsoring charity withdrew its support. Others stepped in and helped Yocum finish the trip.
Last December, Yocum founded his own charity – Active Heroes – based out of Louisville and based on a low-overhead, volunteer-run approach to raising money and helping veterans and their families. The group has a board of advisers and works with sponsors and volunteers across the country.
“I didn’t do this to get any personal recognition,” he said. “That’s why this year we’re focusing on other people and what they’re doing to help our charity. I really want to expand.”
Over the last four months, volunteers have helped several military families in Fort Knox. They included a man who served in Yocum’s battalion and now has throat cancer. Another man, an Afghanistan veteran, was alone in his Henryville, Ind., house when the February tornadoes hit — he fled to his basement just as a tornado devastated the building.
Along with providing help for medical costs, the organization has partnered with employers who have pledged to hire 100,000 veterans, Yocum said. But “we are not Publisher’s Clearing House. We don’t show up with a gigantic check.”
To qualify for the group’s help, someone must be active or either honorably or medically discharged. Active Heroes handles other requests on a case-by-case basis, Yocum continued. “That’s one of the things we do — we try to help as many military families in need as possible,” he said. “We’re going to step up our game, and help many more Kentucky families this year.”
Financial support has come from a wide variety of people. They support the military in general, and often specific volunteers who are raising the funds. Yocum cited the case of Matt Campbell, who has begun his Appalachian Trail walk, and whose family and friends are joining his effort.
Many more are expected to begin their own goals for the Memory Miles event. More about that is at the site, including a promotional video. “I think a lot of people came together to come up with ideas,” he said. “It’s just increased exponentially. It’s quite incredible. I’m interested to see, when we do this event even next year, how much more it can grow.”
In Louisville, he added, organizers hope to have a race in conjunction with the Veterans’ Day parade.
“I’m hoping that people will get a sense of urgency and want to participate and help,” Yocum said. “Some people might say, ‘I can’t walk and run all the time; I don’t have time to help.’ But they can donate. They can make a monthly donation and become an ambassador.
“A lot of people don’t really, I guess, understand what it’s like to be in a military family and what they go through. But once they learn that we have a serious problem with veterans’ suicide and unemployment, they’ll want to do something. … We still have a long way to go, but we’ve come a long way in our few months that we’ve existed.”
Photo from Troy Yocum