DALLAS – Ernesto Rodriguez is spending the holidays in Dallas.
Donning cargo pants, a t-shirt, and a desert scarf hanging loosely around his neck, he makes his way through downtown.
A photo posted by Ernesto Rodriguez (@nerdnesto) on
"Walking is better for me than staying places," he said, pulling on his beard. “I try to not to stay in one place for too long.”
The 34-year-old U.S. Army veteran is in town from Tennessee, and will soon be on his way to California. He’s walking across the country to raise awareness for veterans with PTSD. He started in his hometown of Clarksville and is on his way to Los Angeles.
His goal is to walk 2,200 miles in honor of the 22 veterans who commit suicide every day -- an often cited statistic based on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs report from several years ago.
Ernesto joined the Army at age 19 and retired in March. During his 15 years with the United States Army Airborne Infantry, Ernesto Rodriguez served two tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. His unit was also one of the first to go into Iraq during the initial March 2003 invasion.
The tours took their toll and Ernesto attempted suicide -- twice.
“I was in a really bad way after my first tour in Afghanistan, and my second," he said, his dark eyes facing front. "I have a daughter, and she would have been without a father. And that's what I think about when thoughts like that creep up."
Ernesto walks an average 16 to 20 miles a day while carrying a 60-pound rucksack and large American flag.
“If you’re walking with your kid around Disney World on your shoulders, that’s me,” he said, smiling. “But I’m doing it every day."
Ernesto, who credits his military training for being able to make the cross-country journey, needs a new pair of shoes, but is otherwise set for clothes and tools. He does, however, rely on the kindness of strangers, and in lieu of cash he asks for a hot meal or help with a hotel room.
What originally started off with two people on Veterans Day is now just Ernesto making a solo trek across the country alone since Thanksgiving.
He's created a social media following due to his frequent updates on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
“We had so many people sending messages saying how we had helped them, or helped one of their family members,” he said. “I felt that I had to keep going.”
People who serve in the military, he said, often need to stay on mission.
"War is hell. That's very true, and you see things that no person should ever see," he said. “So if you give yourself purpose, you can quell those [bad] thoughts.”
"I chose to stay in, and I chose to fight. And I chose to give up a good slice of my brain for it. And reliving some of those moments is very difficult."
After his break in Dallas, Ernesto will head west along I-20 – walking so other soldiers know they're not alone, he said.
“We're trained and conditioned to feel nothing, we're trained and conditioned to be warriors, we're trained and conditioned to fight and kill. But when we get out, we don’t want to admit we have PTSD," he said. "Twenty-two veterans a day, I mean, that's an epidemic. That shouldn't be happening."