Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

Area News

June 19, 2014

Cross-country journey to raise funds for veterans

CROSSVILLE — On the eve of Memorial Day weekend, Justin Kuhel, a 25-year-old resident of Columbus, OH, headed to Camp LeJeune, NC. Instead of training, the Marine was looking forward to strapping on his walking shoes for a good cause.

With the Atlantic Ocean behind him and an American flag strapped to his back, Kuhel began heading west on foot May 23 to complete a 2,753-mile journey to raise awareness and funds for his fellow veterans. He plans on completing his walk from Camp Lejeune to Camp Pendleton, outside of San Diego, CA, by October.

"I'm going from that base to the other base because I was in the Marine Corps, and those are the two main Marine Corps bases here in the United States," he explained.

Kuhel was an active Marine from 2006 to 2010. He was deployed to Ramadi, Iraq, in 2007, and to the Helmand Province in Afghanistan in 2009.

Two years ago, Kuhel decided to walk from his house in Columbus, OH, to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project. Walking 400 miles to the cemetery generated about $13,000 for the organization.

"I did that because I had seen a documentary about a Marine in my unit who was injured while on a patrol... It was kinda about the recovery process and everything that goes into it. I didn't really realize all the recovery that goes into it once you get back to the States. It just made me want to do something to help them out. And it was such a successful thing that I wanted to duplicate it on a larger scale this time," Kuhel said.

Kuhel could not recall when he first got the idea to walk for veterans. However, he said it seemed like a good way to contact the most amount of people without having to have any special skills.

"I'm not out here doing this by myself," he admitted. "It would have been too much. Originally, I was going to do it all just by myself, but my pack would weigh about 120 pounds with all the gear I would have needed. Just not feasible."

Instead, a van advertising March Across America, Kuhel's 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, meets up with him every few miles to check on his condition and his supplies. At the end of the day, his mom, who is currently operating the vehicle, takes Kuhel to a place for the night and returns him the next morning to the spot that he left.

"This is better. It's a lot easier and it gives the person who's driving the opportunity to spread the word, like handing out flyers. So it works out well," Kuhel said.

Since starting his walk in May, Kuhel has only taken two days off to rest and spend time with friends. He crossed into Tennessee June 9. His trek into the Ozone Falls area Monday, June 16, marked his 23rd day of walking and about 525 miles from his starting point. Once he reached Main St. in Crossville the next day, he was treated to lunch at Gondola courtesy of the Crossville Fire Department.

Kuhel tries to put in an average of 23 miles per day in hopes of raising $100,000 for two veteran organizations: the Headstrong Project and Help Our Military Heroes.

"Help Our Military Heroes builds vehicles for guys who were severely injured over there, like a van that you can operate without the use of your legs and with hand controls instead," Kuhel said. "The Headstrong Project aims to provide no hassle mental health care to veterans.

He added, "They're both small organizations, but they are really good, and almost all the money they raise goes right back into their programs."

Whatever Kuhel raises from this walk, he plans to split it evenly between the two organizations. So far, he has raised $16,000 from donations given to him while on the road and from those who visit his website, marchacrossamerica.org.

Kuhel had only kind words to describe his journey so far and his first trip to the Volunteer State.

"All the people are really awesome and everyone's nice and friendly," he said. "I haven't had any bad experiences yet. Everything is just real positive. It's really cool because I get to meet people that I wouldn't otherwise get to meet in my life and, like I said, I have never been to Tennessee before, but it's beautiful walking through here and I've enjoyed my time so far."

Kuhel hopes to reach Nashville by Friday, walking Hwy. 70 most of the way. Once there, he plans to take Saturday and Sunday off to hang out with some of his buddies from Columbus and a former platoon commander who resides in Nashville. Kuhel, who is a certified firefighter and paramedic, anticipates finishing his walk in four months before pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing in January.

To keep up with Kuhel's March Across America, or to make a donation, visit his website at marchacrossamerica.org. He also provides updates on Facebook and Twitter.

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