#ForThe22: A Walk to Remember

May 24, 2017

by Nichole Hamilton

Honor, duty, strength and American pride – these are the characteristics we attribute to the brave men and women who leave their families and sacrifice their lives to fight for our country. We honor their bravery overseas and rejoice when they return home. However, their return often signals the beginning of an immensely personal and traumatizing war that veterans must fight – post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Thousands of U.S. veterans wage silent battles against PTSD, struggling to find help and express their struggle. Inspired by this challenge, our Southern California team, comprised of members of FleishmanHillard’s Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego offices, was eager to help spread awareness about this critical nationwide issue. When executive assistant Mary Yousef received a call from an Army veteran who was walking across the country to raise awareness for veterans with PTSD, we gladly took on this FH4Inclusion project.

Ernesto Rodriguez, a 35-year old Army veteran and father, was deployed on four tours of duty during his 15 years of service – two in Iraq and two in Afghanistan – and his U.S. Army Airborne Infantry unit was one of the first to step foot in Iraq in 2003. This strong, burly man with a heart even bigger than his physique, asked for help give a voice to those who can no longer speak for themselves.

When Ernesto returned home from his tours, he found that many of his comrades were struggling to adjust to civilian life – the horrors of war haunted them. Without much support or options for treatment, many of Ernesto’s friends – American heroes – chose to take their lives, and Ernesto, himself, attempted suicide. As a result, Ernesto had a mission: to walk 2,200 miles across the country to raise awareness for veterans with PTSD and the growing need for comprehensive mental health services for veterans.

Starting on Veteran’s Day in Tennessee, Ernesto made his way through big cities and open country. On his journey, Ernesto sometimes slept on the side of freeways and trekked through the rough desert between Arizona and California with a very limited supply of water. His final destination, Los Angeles, seemed like a distant dream at one point. Through dedication, the rejuvenating experiences of meeting loved ones of veterans that took their lives, and reuniting with old friends along the way, he continued on. On April 19th, a few months after he began his journey, Ernesto accomplished his goal of walking down the famous Santa Monica Pier, fastening his American flag up to a post, and finally, dedicating his journey to the 22 veterans that take their lives every day as a result of PTSD and other mental health issues.

There were times when Ernesto wasn’t sure if he would complete his journey. Often, he would reach out to our team to share his struggles and doubts about reaching the finish line. Despite his doubts, the team rallied him and those following his journey online showed their support through social media. He ached both physically and emotionally, missing his family and his home, but was so driven by a greater sense of purpose that was further renewed upon catching a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean that morning.

When Ernesto reached the Santa Monica Pier, it was emotional not only for him, but for the ever-growing crowd that joined him. Towards the end of his walk, Ernesto began running, and everyone who had come to support him began to run as well, including the FH team, policemen, veterans and more. This last sprint was visual proof that Ernesto’s story had impacted others and boldly delivered the movement he intended to create. He invigorated the crowd, cheered for the last few as they ran toward him, and ultimately, concluded his journey with a hearty and humble, “I did it.”

Our team coordinated broadcast, radio and print media interviews for Ernesto. Also, they set up ghostwriting and blogging opportunities, and counseled him throughout his journey. The team in Los Angeles grew close to Ernesto – ultimately becoming his friends in addition to his PR team. Virtually and physically, Ernesto gained a following both nationally and internationally, who cheered for him, sent him well wishes, bought merchandise bearing his likeness and even gave him a fully-trained service dog as a companion when he completed his journey. Not surprisingly, Ernesto did much of this on his own. He walked into the Jimmy Kimmel studios to share his story with anyone who would listen and even resourcefully used dating apps to match with reporters to introduce himself as a man that just walked across the country. Because of this, he was featured on CNN, KTLA-TV, KFI-AM Radio, Univision, Homeland Magazine and others.

As PR professionals, we are equipped with skills to tell a story, whether it is for a large corporation or one man, attempting to make the voices of those who are struggling, or no longer with us, heard. Working with Ernesto provided us the opportunity to deliver a genuine and impactful message that influenced many within our own network and resonated with those who struggle with — or who have been impacted by — PTSD and other mental health issues.

You can learn more about Ernesto and his journey by visiting his Facebook page. You can also follow him on Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram at @nerdnesto.