By John Shaughnessy
The mothers and the wives of the soldiers who died would grab David Roth’s face and look into his eyes, crying as they begged him to keep going on his journey to honor their loved ones.
And the military veterans kept stopping Roth in his 3,100-mile walk across the United States, lowering their heads as they solemnly shared the stories of friends who had been killed during wars—“brothers” who had died too young, too soon.
“I didn’t plan on any of that emotion,” says Roth, a member of Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ Parish in Indianapolis. “I didn’t plan on mothers coming up and crying, or soldiers remembering their friend who died in 1963 as if it were yesterday.
“I thought I was a big boy, but there were a few tears on this route. And you met them every single day. They wanted you to say their kid’s name so they won’t be forgotten. The mothers are telling you this. The wives are telling you this. When you don’t count on that emotion, it sure slaps you aside your head and changes your life.”
As he shares that thought, the emotion once again returns to Roth. Tears pool in his eyes. His voice cracks. Apologizing, he pauses. When he continues, he says, “But oddly enough, the epic moment of the journey was in Maryland.”
Then Roth shares the story of the grace-filled moment when a 6-year-old boy standing in the middle of a road known as the “Heroin Highway” restored his sense of hope and innocence in the world.
Hope on the ‘Heroin Highway’
The moment unfolded in the beginning stages of Roth’s cross-country walk from Atlantic City to San Francisco to raise money for Helping Hands for Freedom, a non-profit program that plans to build a retreat home for military families.
In the early part of that journey that began on April 28, it seemed that every day was marked by gray clouds and constant rain—a dreariness that seeped into Roth’s body in the same way that his 23 years of chasing criminals and working the streets as a member of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department had darkened his view of the world.
“We walked through this town—Hagerstown—and it’s a devastated place. And this is coming from a 23-year veteran cop who’s been on the streets most of his career,” says Roth, a 1991 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. “If you’ve been in law enforcement for an extended period of time and you’ve had the pressure, there’s something you give up on, and maybe that’s true innocence.”
Yet as Roth’s dampened spirit turned even more sullen as he slogged through a rain that didn’t quit, an unexpected source of inspiration appeared ahead of him.
“There was a little kid named Ezekiel, and he’s jumping in a puddle and he says, ‘I waited for hours for you,’ ” Roth recalls. “And I’m like, ‘What’s going on? We’re in the middle of nowhere.’ He says, ‘I saw you on Facebook, and I have something for you.’ And he handed me a Snickers bar. I looked at the house that’s behind him. There are sheets over broken-out windows. But the light that came from that 6-year-old kid….”
The emotion hits Roth again. His voice shakes as he says, “I met true innocence through a 6-year-old kid. He walked for about 3 1/2 miles with us in the rain, enjoying everything, telling me about his life. And he asked me questions while we were walking. Then he just left with his older brother and walked away.”
Roth shakes his head. “I don’t like Snickers bars. But I ate that Snickers bar that night, and it was magical.
“Ezekiel re-energized the fight for me. Something that you think is dead, and it’s not. It’s very much alive, and it needs to be fought for.”
The inspiration for the journey
Roth is asked to elaborate on those words, “Something that you think is dead, and it’s not. It’s very much alive, and it needs to be fought for.”
He starts with a focus on “innocence” before taking a deeper turn to “sacrifice.”
“I met everybody on their level—black, white, Hispanic, Laotian, all across the country,” Roth says.
“Hispanic families came up who couldn’t speak English but they had third-generation military ties. We’re on an Indian reservation and they had an American Indian military memorial. If you just met these people, you’d know this country isn’t divided. It’s connected by sacrifice.”
Those thoughts on sacrifice lead the 48-year-old stepfather of three and step-grandfather of five back to 2013 when he first envisioned his cross-country trek.
One of the inspirations for the journey was his stepson, Matthew Coleman, a medic in the U.S. Navy who has been deployed overseas five times, including two stints in Afghanistan and one during a relief effort in Haiti.
“Matthew keeps doing his part and making his sacrifice within the military,” Roth says. “It causes a strain on the whole family. So I’m not only understanding it, I’m experiencing it, having to watch the kids and worry about everything. It opens your eyes. Matt came back every time. He doesn’t have PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], but there is that strain.”
So Roth became involved with Helping Hands for Freedom, an organization that provides support for children of “the fallen, wounded and deployed” men and women who have served in the United States military.
“I started looking at things through that military service mind,” he says. “I’m finding out about neighbors and friends that I’ve known a long time. They never talked about their combat service and what they had to do. I could see them for their service and their sacrifice, which I couldn’t see before.”
The ‘Route for the Brave’
Trying to honor that sacrifice, Roth embraced the organization’s goal of building a House for Healing, a retreat home for military families to come together and “become whole again,” a place that would also offer limited counseling for PTSD.
“My next door neighbor, Daryl Holder, was a combat veteran who suffered from PTSD,” Roth says. “He died two years ago this December. If you don’t get home and acclimated correctly, and you don’t get the services and care you need, you’re going to be dysfunctional for life.”
As a fundraising initiative, he envisioned a walk across America—the “Route for the Brave.”
“There’s always been that adventurous spirit, which I think is locked into every one of us,” says Roth, now the chairman of the board of Helping Hands for Freedom. “To see this country from a ground view has always been a desire of mine, and what better way than to put it into a plan for something bigger. So the walk across America was a tool to tell our story, to tell about the family needs, to tell about the family members.”
What’s amazing to Roth is how much bigger the story became, including all the people who helped “a 294-pound, in-terrible-shape cop”—his
self-description—work toward a dream of honoring the military men and women and their families who risk and sacrifice so much for their country.
It started with his wife of 14 years, Cheryl: “She said, ‘I see that look in your eyes, and there’s no way I’m going to stand in the way of that.’ ”
It continued with the physical training provided by former heavyweight champion Lamon Brewster of Indianapolis: “He said, ‘If you can box eight to ten rounds with me, you can walk across America,’ and he was right. We worked on that regimen, and we stuck to a diet plan, and we got fit.”
It grew in the friendship of his neighbor, Kevin Winton, who walked step by step with Roth across America.
And it involved the support of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, including all the fellow police officers who donated a combined 60 days of vacation time to him for the trip: “So you feel you’re ready to die and quit, but you remember that 60 men and women had sacrificed a day for you because they believed in your cause.”
A journey of challenges and certainties
More than two months have passed since Roth and Winton completed their cross-country walk in San Francisco on Aug. 26. As Veterans’ Day looms ahead on Nov. 11, there are still challenges for Roth that carry over from the journey.
Physically, he’s still recovering from walking an average of 30 miles a day across all kinds of terrain—an experience that resulted in injuries that included bloody feet, a broken toe, “bad knees, a bad hip” and legs that still feel the sensation “of pins and needles.”
The organization is also continuing its efforts to raise the $3 million it needs to build the retreat home.
“We have several offers of land on the table,” Roth says. “We need to assess those. We still need contributions. We’re less than halfway there. I’m still on the phone fundraising. I imagine in a year and a half we’ll be breaking ground, but we don’t know where yet, because we have all these offers [from different areas of the country], and we have to assess them. I wish someone would say, ‘We’d really like this in Indiana and this is what we’re willing to do.’ ”
Still, the adventure has also stamped his life with a certain validation, a deeper meaning.
He knows his Catholic upbringing and his Catholic faith led him to take this journey and guide him on it.
“This has been divinely inspired from the beginning. This is not something I was searching for, but I knew there would have to be a heavy reliance on God. I talk about service to others. This was a true mission. But it didn’t turn out to be service to others. It turned out to be a big present to see the sacrifice that people have made. It’s a present I will take with me the rest of my life.”
So will his changed view of the country.
Understanding the full sacrifice
In walking across the country this summer, Roth says he didn’t have time or energy to get caught up in political campaigns dominated by anger, bitterness and accusation.
The walk also kept him mostly removed from news broadcasts that showed a country dealing with violence, death and conflicts—conflicts that included the ones that involved police officers and protestors inches away from each other, separated by a chasm that resulted in the tragic loss of American lives on both sides of the divide.
“For 23 years, I was in a world of conflict,” Roth says. “Then I walked 3,100 miles across the country. In my adult life, I’ve never felt such a lack of conflict. It was me meeting the families, hugging the families, eating with people at VFW halls. My view of the world turned upside down. Now, I’m back in this world of conflict. But when you walk across this country, you get a true flavor of what it’s really like.”
Roth shares one more story.
“I had a gray-haired Vietnam combat veteran in Colorado Springs meet us for two minutes and talk to us about his combat experience. And his wife’s jaw is on the ground because he never talked about it. And he’s crying.
“Who am I to have these stories told to me? I just decided to walk across the United States and they feel that connection. I’m humbled and scared because my mission is to build this home and continue a legacy for this story and this dialogue to happen.
“There is no Veterans’ Day for me anymore. It’s every day. It’s the veteran I sat across from at lunch. It’s the hundreds and thousands of people I met along the way who don’t know that each other exist, who all have a shared sacrifice. I’ll be honest. I try to avoid the emotion at times. But it’s changed the world that I live in—understanding that full sacrifice.”
(To read the original article, visit the website, http://www.archindy.org/criterion/local/2016/11-04/walk.html.)