Shoeless Hiker Treks Appalachian For Veterans’ Rights

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Former Marine Hikes Appalachians Barefoot for Vets
by Brian J. Howard

Ron Zaleski stopped wearing shoes after he got out of the Marines in 1972.

It was a simple protest against the Vietnam War and a tribute to his buddies who died there. For 33 years, though, he never told anyone that. He’d just give a surly response to anyone who asked about his bare feet. That changed when a little boy put the question to him.

“When I told him, I realized I hadn’t done anything for any of those guys,” said Zaleski, who served stateside during the war. “And later on I realized I’d just been angry and self-righteous. I realized I hadn’t been free, that I’d been doing penance.”

So he decided to do something real. Since May 29, Zaleski, 55, has been hiking the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia. Averaging 12 miles a day, he stopped in Peekskill on Tuesday and slept in the woods around Graymoor before crossing the river yesterday.

Standing barefoot at a pay phone in Bear Mountain State Park yesterday, the former health club owner from Long Island said his aim was to draw attention to the need for returning troops to get the mental health services they often need, but too often don’t seek…

     

“If it’s not mandatory,” he said, “what person wants to admit there’s something wrong with them, especially a 20-year-old?”

Dan Griffin, executive director of the Westchester chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, said returning veterans often wait years to get the help they need. But mandating counseling like Zaleski advocates could be problematic, he said, especially for those seeking jobs in law enforcement or government.

“I agree with him,” Griffin said. “I just don’t know if it can be done. Can you force people to get treatment? Is there a legal issue there?”

J.T. Horn, a spokesman with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in New Hampshire, said as many as 4 million people walk a portion of the trail each year. As a national park it is open to the public, and it isn’t uncommon for people to use the trail to raise money or to promote a cause, Horn said.

It’s unclear how unique Zaleski’s shoeless effort is. A number of clubs around the country are dedicated to barefoot hiking. And Larry Wheelock, trails director with the New York-New Jersey Trails Conference, said he hears about one or two barefoot thru-walkers, those who hike the length of the Appalachian Trail, each year.

Zaleski admits his hike is a form of protest against the war in Iraq, which he sees as another Vietnam. He also describes the trek as a personal journey of discovery. Most important to him, though, is his hope that it makes a difference for veterans suffering the mental effects of war.

His friends and family, including his two grown sons and his father, a World War II veteran, support and understand what he’s doing, even if it is a little off the beaten path.

“Most people that know me know that I’m not your typical bag of rice, you know?” Zaleski said.

Zaleski’s Trek is detailed at  www.thelongwalkhome.org

Appalachian Trail facts

The first section of the trail was completed in 1923 in Bear Mountain State Park.

At 2,175 miles long and just 1,000 feet at its widest, it is America’s skinniest national park.

More than 9,000 people have reported hiking the length of the trail, though it’s unclear how many have done so barefoot.

It takes about 5 million footsteps to walk the entire trail from Maine to Georgia.

Source: Appalachian Trail Conservancy



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