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Army veteran walks 1,800 miles to raise awareness about mental health

VeteranWalking
Posted at 4:52 PM, Jul 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-29 16:52:12-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- An Army veteran is making his way up the East Coast as part of an 1,800-mile walk to honor his friends who died in combat, and raise awareness about the alarming veteran suicide rate.

Greg Washington, 39, wants soldiers and people across the country to know their life matters.

According to a report published by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, an average of 22 veterans die by suicide each day.

"We are taught to be tough, and so we’re tough, we’re tough, we’re tough until we can’t handle it anymore, and we find ourselves at that breaking point and don’t have a plan to be able to help save ourselves," Washington explained.

The former infantry officer and West Point graduate started his walk in Mount Bayou, Mississippi.

While his journey on foot started three months ago, his internal battle has been going on for years.

“There were days where I couldn’t tell if I was awake or dreaming because I was constantly living in pain," said Washington.

Washington served two tours overseas. His first was from 2008 to 2009 in Afghanistan, and he traveled to Iraq in 2009 where he served until 2010. It was there his life changed.

"Two of my best friends, Emily Perez and Scottie Pace, they were both killed in action," he explained.

Washington met Perez and Pace at West Point. Perez was the highest-ranking African-American female Cadet in West Point’s history.

Pace was a combat pilot and the Academy named a ceremony after him following his death.

Because he survived, Washington faces post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and survivor's guilt.

“I remember making that promise to my battle buddies that I was going to be there to have their back, and not being able to be there to fulfill that promise weighed heavy on me for the longest," he noted.

But the young soldier also sustained physical injuries during his tour in Iraq.

A grenade exploded and he outran a car carrying an explosive device, leaving him with concussions so severe he was honorably discharged in 2011 and forced to hang up his uniform.

“My transition out the military was so tough," he explained. "I was almost one of those 22 that commit suicide a day, and if it wasn’t for my baby cousin calling me in the middle of my darkest hour, I might have pulled that trigger."

Washington is using his pain and personal experience to advocate for mental health resources for soldiers.

"It’s one thing to talk about your scars; it’s another to talk about your wounds," he noted.

As Washington walks through Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia, he’s been met by the support of strangers.

"I remember we were stopping and this one lady saw the trailer with the banner and was like I lost two already, and my husband is dealing with PTSD, so thank you for what you are doing," he explained. "All she could do was ball and cry in my arms, so having moments like that during these tough days of walking in the heat and uphill, those moments make a difference."

Washington plans to end his walk on Sept. 11 at West Point, where he hopes to be met by the football team and alumni.

Washington was a star linebacker during his time at West Point.

He asks everyone at home to think of that one friend, family member or "battle buddy" that you haven’t talked to in a while, or that you know is going through something tough, and call and check in on them.

"One phone call might save a life," Washington explained.

To find out more about his journey or to support his walk, you can click here.

This story was originally reported by Caroline Coleburn on WTVR.com