Ron Zaleski was sporting a pair of flip-flop sandals at Watson’s Bar-B-Que Monday. He said he was giving his feet a rest after walking along historic Route 66 barefoot from the KOA Campground into Tucumcari.
Zaleski is walking across the United States without shoes to gather signatures for a petition calling for mandatory counseling for soldiers heading into and returning from overseas combat. He hopes to gather 1 million signatures and deliver the petition to the president Nov. 11, 2011, Veterans Day and — according to Zaleski — his 60th birthday.
Zaleski’s walk started in June in Massachusetts. Zaleski arrived in Amarillo earlier this month and plans to follow I-40 west to Los Angeles. His wife, Valeria Moran, follows Zaleski in an RV as he walks every day and then the couple stays in the RV at night.
Zaleski, a Long Island, New York native who served as a United States Marine from 1970 until 1972, said he stopped regularly wearing shoes after leaving the Marines to pay tribute to his peers who were killed in the Vietnam War.
Zaleski, who wears a sign reading “18 vets a day commit suicide!” as he walks, said the United States has underestimated the dangers post-traumatic stress disorder poses in military veterans. Zaleski and Moran offer a three-point solution to this problem in their petition, which calls for grief counseling for soldiers in boot camp, a re-entry program for soldiers transitioning from war to civilian life, and support groups for soldiers who have been to war.
“When people say ‘I’m sick and tired of hearing about veterans’ issues,’ well, you’re going to hear about them until we start doing something different. We keep doing the same thing, thinking something different’s going to happen,” Zaleski said.
The couple said they hope to save soldiers’ lives by raising awareness of PTSD and changing the way people perceive war-related emotional trauma.
“If they all go through this type of counseling, then the whole stigma of going to counseling, getting some help, gets more and more blurred,” Moran said. “We can spread collateral health instead of accepting collateral damage.”
Zaleski and Moran said they planned to visit Tucumcari’s museums Monday before continuing westward.