Tom L'Italien knows that when a soldier goes to war, he or she does not come back unchanged.
Sometimes that change can lead to a suicide. This was the case for 9,000 veterans during the past year and a half, and the reason the Arizona resident felt the push to pedal his bicycle 2,700 miles this summer.
"What motivates me is the 9,000 guys I'm pedaling with," he said as he held back tears. "The mothers and the fathers and the sisters and the brothers. The children that need scholarships and the wives who lose their homes."
The 63-year-old is on the board of directors for the Team Veteran Foundation, a national group that raises money to aid veteran nonprofit groups. For the last two years, the foundation has been targeting their efforts to stop and bring attention to veteran suicide, which happens every 65 minutes, according to the group's website.
In June, L'Italien said he received a visit from the Holy Spirit that told him to make a trip across the country to bring awareness to this issue. Although the planning stages were rushed, he said the suicide rate made his trip all the more urgent.
"I just couldn't sit down in my house anymore and watch TV and not do anything," he said. "I had to do something."
His 48-day journey, which he calls the Suicide Responsibility Ride, began on June 21 in Flagstaff, Ariz.. Before his conclusion in Boston Aug. 4, he will have traveled through Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. McPherson and will leave today for Emporia.
"(Team Veteran Foundation) has been paying attention to (veteran suicide) the last couple of years, and we didn't think the country really paid attention to it, and it's been confirmed with the people I've met," he said. "I've got responses, such as 'I didn't know that,' or 'I've never heard it' and the absolutely unacceptable response of, 'That's a shame' when they really should be saying, 'What can I do to help?'"
L'Italien is helping by raising awareness and working toward several goals of Team Veteran Foundation. Other than to raise awareness of veteran suicides, another goal is to raise funds through corporate support to build medical facilities with surrounding houses to support veteran families. Other goals include setting up a national suicide hotline and erecting a Statute of Responsibility sculpture in San Diego.
This can be accomplished through the donations of the general public, what L'Italien calls the hands of the angels.
"This 93 percent population has to step up to help the 7 percent veteran population," he said. "They can't let another Vietnam happen. They cannot. The Vietnam soldiers were forgotten. They were spit on, and they were treated as though they were the problem. We cannot let that happen to the veterans coming home."
Page 2 of 2 - Although he is not a veteran himself, L'Italien is a brother to four veterans. And he has seen what service in the military can do.
"When my older brother, Al, returned from Vietnam, I saw how the tragedies he experienced impacted and changed his life," he said in a press release. "Although he never talked about his experiences, we could see a big difference in him."
L'Italien is aware the price veterans pay for the sake of the nation.
"I'm not a veteran, but I know where my freedom comes from," he said, "and that, to me, is motivating. I want this country to understand from my point of view that the things we enjoy on a daily basis we take for granted and only because people sacrificed their lives. This is a small honor for me to do something like this. It's a privilege."
Contact Jenae Pauls at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @PaulsSentinel