Jeremy Miller, a man from Boise, Idaho, is walking across the country to raise awareness for veteran suicide rates and stopped in Hillsboro on Wednesday.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said in its 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report that an average of 16.8 veterans died by suicide each day in 2017.
Miller told The Times-Gazette he served in the U.S. Army from 2007 to 2015, which included one tour in Iraq in 2011.
“We didn’t lose anybody in Iraq,” Miller said. “We got back at the end of 2011 and, within three years we lost four guys to suicide.”
Miller said he himself came close to attempting suicide.
“I was going to drive off this cliff, and I probably would’ve literally landed on my tent,” Miller said. “I was homeless at the time. I’d been homeless since January until I started this walk, which I guess, technically, I’m still homeless. But I got to where I was just going to just drive off the cliff, and my son flashed before my eyes. I ended up, right before going off the edge, slamming on the breaks. I was like, ‘I can’t do it. Something different has to happen.’ Best decision I’ve ever made.”
Miller said his “happy place” is in nature, which is something he considered when planning his journey.
“Nature, outdoors, backpacking, rocking climbing is where I’m happy,” Miller said. “I thought, ‘I’ll be in the setting I love to be in, and I’ll be able to talk to as many veterans as I can one-on-one instead of on Facebook or whatever.”
Miller said he took two weeks to plan his trip, then took a bus to Crescent City, Calif. and started walking on May 22.
“I try to do at least 20 to 25 miles a day. Sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less, just depending on if people have something set up,” Miller said. “Lately, it’s been like 30 to 35 miles a day just because people will be like, ‘Oh, hey, I’ve got something set up for you. We thought you’d be here this day.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, well, I guess I’ll make it there that day. Now I’ve gotta step it up a little bit.’”
While he’s walking, Miller said he tries to take a break every three hours. If he passes through a town, he’ll grab something quick for lunch; otherwise, he cooks ramen noodles on the roadside with a portable cooker. Sometimes he pitches his tent near the road, but Miller said he hasn’t had to sleep in his tent for about two months.
“I’ve had so many people who offer stuff up. Tomorrow I’ll be walking to Bainbridge, and something is supposed to be set up there, but if not, there’s a guy from Chillicothe who was like, ‘I’ll come pick you up then I’ll take you back out there the next day to start walking again.’”
Miller said VFWs and American Legions have paid for him to stay at a hotel 75 percent of the time since he left Kansas City on Oct. 1.
When Miller stayed in Hillsboro on Wednesday night, the Mowrystown American Legion paid for him to stay in a hotel, and the Paint Creek Joint EMS/Fire District bought him dinner.
“We received a call. I believe it was from the Clermont County Veterans Service Office. They said he would be coming through, and they were looking to see if our post would be interested in putting him up for the night. We said, ‘Absolutely we would.’ That’s what we’re there for: to provide support for the veterans,” Chuck Emery of the Mowrystown American Legion said. “I see enough correspondence through the VFW and the America Legion and other organizations. The number of veterans that commit suicide sticks with you.”
Paint Creek felt similarly.
“We just wanted to help him because that’s what we’re here for — to help people out,” Paint Creek Capt. Matt Miller said. “The least we can do is give him some food and a warm place to eat it. He’s walking for a good cause and dealing with some of the same PTSD stuff that we see here at the firehouse.”
Miller estimates he’s traveled about 3,200 miles as of Wednesday, Nov. 13, though he got rides for about 300 to 400 miles total.
“When I was in Kansas, I was going to speak at a Christian music festival, and I was about 80 miles away, so I ended up getting a ride into that town,” Miller said. “I try not to get any rides unless it has to do with reaching out to people and raising suicide awareness.”
Miller said he’s about a month and a half behind schedule.
“I should’ve been done before Halloween, but it’s grown so big that I’m staying in towns for like two or three days just to be able to meet all the people who want to come out and meet me,” Miller said. “There was one guy [in Missouri] who hadn’t left his house in two years, and he came to see me. He texted me and said, ‘I wouldn’t be alive if I hadn’t met you. I was going to take my own life, but you inspired me not to.’ Now he’s back out in the community and hanging out with other veterans. When he sent me that message, I was like, ‘That’s worth missing my son for six months, being homeless, living on the road, going through everything that I have’ — that made it all worth it, just one person sending me that text. I don’t care if I’m behind schedule. I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.”
Since he’s been in Ohio, he’s received more than $4,000 in donations.
“I’m in awe. I did not expect this. I figured basically $5 a day in donations on the side of the road, and now I’m starting a nonprofit,” Miller said. “I could’ve started a Facebook page, but I don’t think it would’ve gone anywhere, especially just being from little old Boise, Idaho. I know people have to have something extreme to catch their eye nowadays, so I was like, ‘Walking across the U.S. would be that extreme thing that will hopefully catch people’s eyes and make a difference.’ And it did. It still is.”
Miller said any donations he receives are going toward his nonprofit, Walk Across America, Inc.
“I’m trying to raise more funds so I can afford lawyers to draw up all the paperwork,” Miller said. “I’m almost there. The goal of my nonprofit is to be able to pay for mental illness treatments, like counselors and stuff like that, or getting people to their happy place. I try to tell everybody: ‘I found my happiness. I know you can find yours.’ To do so, my mission is to walk through every single town in America before I die to raise awareness. Not walk to them, but just walk with somebody in every single town and raise awareness across the entire country. I’m only 30, so I feel like it’s definitely doable. I feel like already I’ve got a lot of supporters.”
Miller said he hopes to meet with President Trump, who he feels has done a lot for veterans, once he reaches the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
”He’s been trying to help out a lot, and I hope to be able to meet him when I get into Arlington National Cemetery,” Miller said. “Wherever he is, the national news media is. With him backing it in some way, I think it would help raise awareness a lot more than me just walking across the U.S.”
Miller said that, if he could say anything to the public, he’d say, “Find your happiness, and be vulnerable. Reach out for help if you need it. Be willing to talk about what you’ve gone through, like the different traumatic experiences or whatever it may be. Talk to people about it, so you don’t have to keep reliving it yourself. There’s that huge stigma, especially in men, where it’s like ‘Suck it up, move on, rub some dirt on it.’ But you can’t do that.”
Miller will be at the VFW Post 108 in Chillicothe on Saturday, Nov. 16 at 5 p.m. A representative of the VFW told The Times-Gazette the public is welcome.
To keep up with Miller’s journey, like his page “Walk Across America” on Facebook. To make a donation, go to gofundme.com/f/walk-across-america-for-veteran-suicide-awareness.
Reach McKenzie Caldwell at 937-402-2570.