As Iraq War veteran Troy Yocum walks toward Indianapolis today, two weeks into a journey that will take many months, he carries with him three items essential to his quest to raise $5 million for military families by walking 7,000 miles around the United States: a drum, a Louisville Slugger baseball bat and a Vietnam-era ammo can.
At his heels is his steady companion, Emerson Elaine Eskridge the Superdog (Emmie for short) and at his side a random assortment of strangers who join his "Drum Hike" for a few minutes or a few miles after locating him on his website's tracking map. In the middle of a phone conversation with Tonic, a voice in the background summoned him away, and he came back to the receiver a moment later to say, "a woman from Indianapolis just came down to walk with me. Like I said, people walk up to me and walk with me all the time."
It's a perfect illustration of the motto emblazoned on his hike's official t-shirt: "never walk alone." Too many families of deployed soldiers, Yocum believes, do just that. "In the last couple years, thousands of military families have been applying for financial assistance," he said. "And there's just not enough money being donated to help them. I knew I had to do something."
Drumming Up Support
As he walks, he beats the drum -- which doesn't kill his hands due to sponsorship from Bionic Gloves -- as a way to literally drum up donations for the financial assistance program of Soldiers' Angels, an organization that supports deployed soldiers and their families.
On the day he first tried drumming to attract attention to his message, he got 500 hits on his website and donations of several hundred dollars, a huge improvement over the 13 site visitors he had previously pulled in. "It sounds ridiculous and it looks completely stupid," he said. "But if I gotta bang on a drum to get people's attention walking down the street, well then, that's what I gotta do."
Directing people's attention to the stress that many military families face is an idea that came to Yocum while he was stationed in Iraq, where he was distressed to receive emails from a friend, an Iraq veteran, who had lost his job and was losing his house. It brought to Yocum's mind memories of his grandfather, a World War II veteran who had faced the same problems and ended up committing suicide as a result.
Yocum contacted nonprofit organizations to find help for his friend, but everywhere got the same answer: There isn't enough funding to go around. Yocum made up his mind that he would find a way to help all those families when he got home and immediately started researching a game plan. He turned up the story of Terry Fox, a one-legged man who had run across Canada to raise money for cancer research. "That story was so amazing, and he raised millions and millions of dollars," said Yocum. "That's something I could do to help spread awareness across America but also raise millions of dollars to help military families."
He was determined to prevent more people from getting "into a situation like my grandfather where they lose their jobs and they have no other way out, or at least that's what they think, and then they kill themselves. Did you realize that 20 percent of all suicides are veterans?"
Batting a Thousand
The baseball bat, for its part, is an unusually shaped petition. When Yocum came home to Louisville, Ky., from Iraq with the idea for the hike in mind and a route already mapped out, he went first to the Louisville Slugger company, which makes the official bats for Major League Baseball. They told him they wanted to make him a custom bat as a gift to honor his time in Iraq. But after Soldiers' Angels asked him to carry a petition on his journey to collect signatures in support of the creation of a National Day of Deployed Soldiers, a goal the organization has been working toward for five years, Yocum had a better idea.
"I said instead of me taking a piece of paper that some Congressman will get in Washington, D.C. and file away in some cabinet, why don't we get something signed that's so big they can't file it?" Yocum said.
He took his idea to Louisville Slugger and asked "instead of giving me a gift why don't we give the gift to all our nation's deployed soldiers?" The Slugger company designed The National Day of the Deployed Bat, which, says Yocum, he's getting "signed by mayors, congressmen, senators, police chiefs, medal of honor recipients" all across the country.
His route across the country will be a loop stringing together major cities, something he says no one who's walked the country for a cause has ever done before. After his start on April 17, things are going well so far, though he is in a rush to cover 45 miles in the next two days to reach Indianapolis in time to do a mini-marathon that he hopes will increase his visibility.
He'll also gain attention by hiking the bases in at least 20 minor and major league baseball stadiums in many cities, a stunt he has arranged with the help of Louisville Slugger and Heroes of the Diamond.
From Indianapolis his path goes up to Chicago, down to St. Louis and across to Los Angeles, where he has been told he might well be invited onto The Ellen DeGeneres Show on Veterans Day (November 11). From L.A., it will be south to San Antonio and then east though Austin and back, eventually, to Louisville.
Ammo Can Help
At particular locations along that ambitious route, "Purple Heart Parachutist" Dallas Wittgenfeld, a Vietnam vet who served years before Yocum in the same unit, will parachute from the sky with a giant American flag to meet Yocum. Wittgenfeld was instrumental in raising significant funding to enable the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and it's Wittgenfeld we have to thank for the ammo can, the third unusual item Yocum thinks will be essential to his success.
The can, which Wittgenfeld gave to Yocum as a gift, was the receptacle that collected a million dollars toward the construction of the Vietnam Memorial. Yocum hopes it will have similar results for his own project.
"I have to say I'm deeply honored by this gift, and I hope that it helps a lot," Yocum said. "The ammo can already raised a million dollars, so I'm hoping it has some magic still that can work for us."
Even without magic, though, this big-hearted veteran has no doubts that his plan to raise $5 million and help secure a National Day of the Deployed will succeed. "I am certain that I'll be able to do it," he said. "We're just starting out. I've only walked 320 miles of 7,000, so I'm hoping that the story builds and builds and builds."
Photo courtesy of Troy Yocum