Journey for change: Disabled (non-service connected) vet makes stop in Petersburg during Walk Across America to promote better veterans’ health care
T. Anthony Bell, Senior Writer/Special Projects
PETERSBURG – “One step at a time.”
Petersburg, September 19. The wagon has accompanied him for 2,400 miles of a 3,000 mile Walk Across America trip that started in Las Vegas six months ago and is scheduled to concluded in Washington next month in Washington, DC. His trip aims to bring awarness to veteran health issues.
That’s how Air Force veteran Thomas Wayne Hudson chooses to characterize his Walk Across America that is meant to bring attention to veteran health issues.
“The walk is about awareness, learning and delivering our message to elected officials in Washington,” said the disabled widower.
The Houston native stopped in Petersburg on Monday. It was the 2,400-mile mark of a 3,000-mile trip that will conclude sometime during October in the nation’s capital. He is scheduled to meet with Congressional members in November, he said.
According to his website, the crux of his mission is to improve government-administered health care for veterans through legislative change.
“If we fall into a mindset of apathy,” it states, “then nothing will ever be done and the status quo will prevail. We might not be able do a lot, but we can try, one step at a time.”
Hudson’s trip began May 2 in Las Vegas. The 63-year-old set out with a pull-along wagon carrying everything he needed for the trek – clothes, toiletries, tents and reading material that included a book written by Bryan Carpenter titled “Never-ending Battle After Iraq – A Marine’s Road to Recovery.”
“It’s an inspiration,’ he said. “He survived two IEDs in Iraq, so I’ve been taking this across America.”
Hudson would need the motivation. His journey involved walking through deserts, forests, rough terrain and obstacles that warranted alternative means of transportation.
“Let me make a disclaimer: Did I walk the entire way?” asked Hudson with a large dose of folksiness. “No. There are some exceptions because I was taught as a child only God knows how to walk across water. I did not walk across the Mississippi River.”
Hudson said he hitched a ride with the Patriot Guard Riders to cross that divide.
In addition to the physical obstacles, the weather was also problematic.
“Ninety-eight degrees and 60 percent humidity with two flat tires out in the middle of nowhere in Alabama is no fun,” he lamented.
In that episode, Hudson said he was rescued by supporters.
There were also the encounters of violence. In New Mexico, he said he was mistaken for a political supporter and punched in the stomach. In Tennessee, his wagon was overturned by “punks.” Just a few weeks ago in Georgia, he was assaulted.
Hudson downplayed those experiences in favor of everyone who made his trip deeply meaningful. Fellow veterans, public officials, members of the media and throngs of well-wishers are among the many who inspired him to trudge on, he said.
“I had a reporter in Russellville, Ark., who saw me and, later that afternoon, she brought her 1-year-old boy for me to hold and have a picture made,” said Hudson in a slow Texas drawl. “I also met a 97-year-old World War II vet. This was in Hamilton, Ala. He showed up with his wife. He acted like he was on his honeymoon. He had been married 68 years. That’s older than me.”
With every new face and place – from the most isolated corners of the countryside to the bustling metropolises – his love and appreciation for the nation grew.
“Our country is great,” he said. “Sometime you’ve got to get out of a certain area and go see people across the country. To be able to spend the night on two Indian reservations and meet a lot of veterans who are Native Americans, and the different cultures and the different towns. It revitalizes my spirit about America. We hear all the negative all the time, but there’s still a lot of good people.”
More importantly, Hudson said his respect and admiration for those who have served and are serving is stronger than ever. Among the highlights that reaffirmed his journey’s purpose was seeing vets gather in Holbrook, Ariz., for the annual Run for the Wall cross-country bike ride and a military medal presentation about 90 miles away.
“To see 300 motorcyclists come in that town escorted, and they’re all wearing their military vests … ” he reminisced, unable to finish the thought. “To see things like that. I also attended a Purple Heart ceremony in Flagstaff, Ariz. It just makes you so proud you are a part of a family. Then to be able to speak to veterans who just got out of the military or the ones who are still in; to be able to give them advice, tell my story and also hear their stories.”
Hudson said he has embodied his experiences, and as a messenger, will use them to give veterans a greater voice in Washington.
“I’m willing to say, ‘Listen to us – listen to the veterans and the American people across the land’ because what we’re saying is totally different” than what is being heard in the nation’s capital, he said, noting he is not only advocating for veterans of today but those in the future.
To further make his case, Hudson pulled out a card given to him by Albuquerque, N.M., Mayor Richard Berry and read it aloud. “‘Never again will a generation of veterans abandon another.’ That is the hallmark of the way I feel,” he said.
Hudson said only time will tell whether his efforts are fruitful.
“I’m no hero or anything of that nature, however, I feel good that even though this might be my last adventure in life, at least I tried,” he said.
Hudson said he was diagnosed with carcinoid tumors in 2009 and has endured four surgeries.