CLARK, NJ - As Clark residents were getting ready to enjoy the beach, vacations, pools and all the wonderful activities that come with summer, one man was preparing for an adventure unlike any of his neighbors. At 10:00 a.m. on June 20, as many locals slept in on their first official day of summer vacation, Eric Peters set off from his home in Clark with a final destination of Santa Monica, California. This might not seem like an unusual summer destination unless you consider that Peters is making the journey by foot and the lazy days of summer will long be over before he gets where he is going.
Eric Peters is a 23 year old veteran of the United States Army. Peters, a graduate of Arthur L. Johnson High School in Clark, served most recently in Afghanistan from 2010 until 2013. In March 2013, the Humvee he was riding in was hit by a recoilless round. Peters suffered Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), hearing loss, injuries to his ankle, tinnitus and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As a result of this event Peters is the recipient of a Purple Heart. This is an award bestowed exclusively upon members of any of the US armed forces wounded or killed by enemy forces.
Peters’ decision to walk across America has its roots in that fateful day. This Army veteran could never have imagined it then, but that explosion was the fuel for an internal eruption Peters felt when his request for help was turned down by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). In a surprising response from the VA, this combat veteran was denied benefits when he felt he needed them the most.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has been making headlines in the past months for their inability to properly serve the men and woman they were designed to help. The scandals have included accusations of data manipulation, mishandling of disability claims, systematic delays and overall corruption with no level of accountability. These scandals were tied to the death of veterans that did not receive the assistance they needed. Eric Peters represents a local example of the mistreatment of a veteran by a system wrought with inefficiencies. This unexpected turn of events sparked Peters to start his cross-country walk to raise awareness for the blight of veterans suffering from PTSD and TBI.
Through his journey Peters hopes to raise funds to support veterans afflicted by these disorders. As Peters shared on his Facebook page, No Veteran Walks Alone, “ I am doing a walk to California from New Jersey to raise PTSD/TBI awareness. If I can collect donations to help fund this cause, it would be greatly appreciated by all service members afflicted with these conditions. I will make sure our Veterans are not lost, nor forgotten. No car, no bike, just my feet walking to California ... showing all Veterans 'We Do Not Stand Alone!'”
Peters does not stand alone in his journey either. He has his biggest cheerleader and personal navigator living right here in New Jersey. Dee Smalling self-identifies as Eric Peters’ mom. She has all the pride, concern and hope a mother holds for her child when she speaks about Peters’ journey from young man, to military personnel, to dedicated veteran. It was only after some time in conversation with Smalling that it became apparent that she had become Peters’ mom through time and experiences with each other. There is no shared biology or official adoption papers but there is mutual love, time, dedication and memories between them. Make no mistake, Dee Smalling proudly calls Eric her son, as any mom should.
Smalling says of Peters, “He has a heart of gold; he is willing to take the shirt off his back for anyone. He loves this country; he fought for it, bled for it and is so proud to be an American. This situation with the VA really got him down. You know there are 26 suicides a day of PTSD sufferers, he wants to bring awareness. He is just a super super guy.” She went on to explain that he is dedicated to making this walk happen and to supporting his charity of choice.
Peters is raising money for the Give an Hour organization (GAH). According to their website, “GAH is dedicated to meeting the mental health needs of the troops and families affected by the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.” They provide counseling to individuals, couples, families, children and adolescents. Smalling shared that this charity not only stood to help the cause Peters was highlighting but the money they collect goes right into the charity, not into salaries and administrative fees as she suggested is the case for too many other veterans’ charities.
Peters left here in late June determined to raise awareness and money to help veterans afflicted with PTSD and TBI. He left, according to Smalling, with “not a dollar in his pocket.” She explained that he didn’t have the best shoes or the right socks but he was determined to make this happen and he just left. As he weaves his way across this great land, Peters is gaining notoriety and a celebrity of sorts. He has been taken in at night by folks that were strangers when he left Clark but cheerleaders and friends by the time he left their town. Peters has been given the kindness of strangers and is making an impact on the many lives he touches and those of veterans he may never meet.
Peters’ national crusade has its starting line here in Clark. To show him some hometown support, donations to his cause can be made at http://www.gofundme.com/9bsmx4
Today, Peters is in Lafayette, Indiana and has his sites set on Springfield, Illinois. He has traveled more than 800 miles so far and has walked through three pair of Merrell boots (his favorite brand). His longest distance in a single day is 50 miles.
Check back with TAP into Clark for updates on Peters' progress on this journey in the months to come.