As mile after mile of road passes beneath his bicycle, 63-year-old Tom L'Italien said his thoughts repeatedly return to the thousands of U.S. veterans who have committed suicide.
L'Italien, of Phoenix, is traveling across the country on his mountain bike to raise awareness and funds to battle an "epidemic" of veterans committing suicide. He is a member of the Team Veteran Foundation, a nonprofit group focused on helping veterans and their families.
"What I think about is the 9,000 soldiers riding with me," L'Italien said. "Since January of 2012 we've lost over 9,000 veterans before I started this. The more you think about it, the more it overwhelms you. So I get up every morning, say my prayers before I leave, get on my bike and I pedal."
An estimated 22 veterans committed suicide each day in the United States in 2010, according to a recently released reported from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
L'Italien's journey from Flagstaff, Ariz., to Massachusetts began on June 21. L'Italien said he could not wait to begin the trip despite being about 30 pounds overweight and it being one of the hottest times of the year.
"On June 12, I got a visit from the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit said you are going to take a cross country trip to raise awareness of suicide among veterans," L'Italien said. "By June 21, I left. People say how come you didn't train for it but every 65 minutes a veteran is committing suicide. I couldn't wait.
"I just couldn't sit home anymore knowing somebody had to do something about it because some of the people in the country were looking at these veterans who committed suicide as cowards. I was told that personally and it infuriated me. We had one parent tell us their son said, 'I don't think God can love me because of the amount of people I killed in the war' and then he committed suicide right after that."
The venture was a struggle during the beginning, L'Italien said. Leg cramps and severe dehydration plagued his first few days while traveling through Arizona and New Mexico. From there, he traveled through Kansas and Missouri until stopping Saturday to rest at the home of Ray "R.J." Stratton in Shiloh. On Monday, he will continue on until he reaches in Lynn, Mass., near Boston.
L'Italien, who is a school bus driver, said he hopes to raise funds to help veterans and their families facing the consequences of suicide, such as helping families facing foreclosure or college scholarships for veterans' children. He also wants to solicit help from civilians, in particular the business community, to support veterans facing long waits for mental health help from the federal government.
"There are 300,000 soldiers coming home," L'Italien said. "I suspect some of them are going to have the same symptoms of those already here. If you have 300,000 soldiers coming home and the (Veterans Affairs) can't meet the need now, what's going to happen? So we think that the civilian population in this country needs to step up and not allow what happened to Vietnam veterans happen to these soldiers.
"Everybody rallies around the flag when the Twin Towers were knocked down but we seem to be forgetting our obligations and responsibilities to those coming home. We need to rally around this issue and do something about it. Nobody is recognizing it because it's one soldier at a time. If it was 9,000 soldiers at once, it would be significant."
Stratton, a 23-year retired Navy veteran, said the Team Veteran Foundation offers corporations employee benefits, such as identity theft protection, which the company can claim as a tax deduction. He described the service as a "win, win, win" and said all of the proceeds benefit veterans services.
L'Italien travels between 50 and 60 miles per day, pulling a buggy behind him with about 100 pounds of gear. Among the gear is a small model of a 300-foot statue planned for construction honoring veterans. The statue features two hands in a military grip, symbolizing someone in need receiving a helping hand, L'Italien said of his "precious cargo."
"The response we've gotten from people shown this statue has been absolutely incredible," L'Italien said. "This country is a great country. When the hands of the angels, the 93 percent of the civilian population, get behind something they solve it."
L'Italien said he is not a veteran, though, he experienced some of the struggles endured by military families through four brothers who served in the military.
He said he saw the most change in one of his brothers who returned from Vietnam.
"He never talked about it, but he was different than before he left and it took him a long time to adjust. I am not a veteran but I know where my freedom comes from. It's not hard for me to understand that I needed to do something and it had to be right away. Something that brought this country together."
To make a donation to Team Veteran Foundation or to read a journal written by L'Italien during his journey, visit www.teamveteran.org.
Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at email@example.com or 618-239-2501.