SANTA MONICA, Calif. — A former soldier on Wednesday completed a 2,200-mile walk across the United States to draw attention to suicides among military veterans.
Army veteran Ernesto Rodriguez finished his trek from Clarksville, Tennessee, to the California coast when he walked the last few miles and onto the Santa Monica Pier.
A police motorcycle officer led the way and a crowd of supporters followed as Rodriguez strode to the end of the pier with American flags protruding from his backpack.
"I'm freaking out, I'm overwhelmed," he told KTTV. "It's the culmination of everything I've done and it's starting to hit me. I've tried to stay calm pretty much up until today but I'm getting to a point where my emotions are starting to hit."
Rodriguez, who spent 15 years in the Army, said he got the idea for the journey after hearing about a 2012 study that said there were 22 veteran suicides a day.
"I could've been one of those 22 back in 2011," he told the station. "I wanted to find a way to inspire those that are having dark days like that to just keep pushing forward. So I just started walking."
The trek began on Veterans Day 2016.
"There's been days I've wanted to quit," he said. "There's been days that I almost died, to be quite honest. When I was out in the desert it was rough — dehydration, heat exhaustion — but there were so many people that came out. I remember something as simple as somebody driving and finding me and bringing me water or Gatorade just to make sure I wasn't dehydrated out there.
"I'm so grateful for the kindhearted people that helped me get through this."