The 2,462-mile Buddy Watch Walk Pier to Pier walk may have ended but their efforts at raising awareness of veterans suicide are continuing.
American Legion members John Ring and Jimmy Mathews were escorted by other veterans, including Legionnaires and American Legion Riders as they finished their adventure June 14 in Santa Monica.
“It’s been quite a journey and seeing the people who are out here, walking with us is really inspiring,” Ring said as he neared the finish line at the Santa Monica Pier. “I’m just thankful for all the support of The American Legion. I’m just really thankful for all the people in The American Legion. I encourage all younger veterans to get involved and be part of the Legion.”
Ring, a specialist in the Georgia Army National Guard’s 48th Infantry Brigade, started a solo venture Oct. 1 from Tybee Island in the Peachtree State. The goal of his mission was to raise awareness about veterans issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, MST, homelessness and suicide. “I basically wanted to raise awareness of all these things that are leading veterans to commit suicide at a horrific rate in our country. It’s been an amazing journey.”
Jimmy Mathews, a retired master sergeant in the U.S. Army, heard of the Buddy Walk on social media and reached out to Ring. Mathews retired on Nov. 14 and joined Ring four days later in Mississippi.
The original plan was for Mathews to accompany Ring across Mississippi. But that was not enough for Mathews. During a Thanksgiving break at home, his PTSD kicked in from flashbacks and nightmares related to his service. He needed the camaraderie he felt with Ring and veterans they met on their journey.
“I decided to go with him the rest of the way because I became so inspired by these stories that we heard from veterans who were struggling with the same issues that I was dealing with,” Mathews said.
Ring got the idea for the walk based on his experiences working with veterans. “Working with veterans from all different eras, all different conflicts, I saw that their struggles among all veterans are the same.”
When he was in Montgomery, Ala., the trajectory of his journey changed dramatically. That’s when he started receiving support, first with the Department of Alabama and throughout the remainder of his journey. In fact, the final leg of his journey began with an event at American Legion Post 43 in Hollywood.
Ring recalls seeing the flags outside the Alabama headquarters building where he met with James Gillespie, the membership assistant at the department. Gillespie and Department Adjutant Greg Akers immediately helped Ring, getting him dinner, a hotel room and support from American Legion posts and members along the rest of the way of his walk.
“They were all very supportive … up until COVID-19,” Ring says with a laugh.
When social-distancing measures kicked in, Ring and Mathews were in New Mexico. They took a 53-day break and “waited for the country to catch up, wanted to see how everybody would respond to it.”
In that time, Ring and Mathews saw veterans continue to struggle with mental-health issues, as well as losing jobs to the pandemic. “Veterans were suffering more from what they had been so we had to get back out there,” Ring explained.
On May 11, they picked up where they left off in New Mexico, and finished in Santa Monica on June 14 — Flag Day and the Army’s birthday.
“We’ve been going coast to coast, post to post — when we could — talking to veterans, sharing our story, listening to their stories, listening to their struggles.”
As they neared the end, Mathews expressed hope that the awareness they brought to PTSD had an impact.
“Hopefully in the end we save as many lives as possible, and cut down the number of 22 veterans a day who commit suicide,” he said. “I know I have friends and comrades who reach out to me every day, saying that they are struggling. Now they reach out to me and say they appreciate what we are doing. It keeps them going and living another day.”
Looking back on his 2,462-mile walk, it’s all worth it to Ring as long as one thing happens.
“If I was able to save one veteran’s life, it’s all worth it. And I would do it all over again.”
In fact, he has another walk planned, starting in March 25, 2022. He will walk from Normandy to Berlin “to honor and remember World war II veterans. We’re starting that on the day my great uncle was KIA during World War II. It means something for my family and me, but it also means something for all of our veterans.
“We’re not going to stop. We’re not done here.”