Fresh off of five years in Afghanistan working with American soldiers for the U.S. Department of Defense, Scotsman Neil Davis, a 24-year veteran of the British army, wanted to give back and is calling for more to be done to give mental health support to veterans.
After a year of planning, he is starting that journey quite literally on his own. On Aug. 1, a mere two months since returning from Afghanistan, the 49-year-old Glasgow native stepped off from Provincetown, Massachusetts, a far point east in the U.S., to begin a several-month, cross-country walking tour to Huntington California to raise awareness about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in veterans in person and through his Facebook page sharing photos and stories from his travels. Davis, who lives in of Pitlochry, Scotland now, is calling it the Not Broken, Just Damaged Walk Across America 2015.
He is raising money for the Wounded Warrior Project and UK-based non-profit Combat Stress benefiting soldiers and veterans through social media. So far his initiative has raised about $11,000 to $12,000 for Combat Stress and about $1,020 for the Wounded Warrior project.
Davis crossed into Killingly on Friday night and was in Chaplin along Route 6 by about 5:45 p.m. Saturday. He had already walked 22 miles Saturday by that time, understandably telling NBC Connecticut, "I'm tired." But the 25 to 30 miles he's been walking a day are well worth it to him.
He set out from Provincetown by himself with a stroller decorated with large American and British flags, but he certainly hasn't been alone. He's encountered many strangers along the way who have helped him and surprised him with their kindness.
“The generosity, hospitality and kindness of complete strangers have blown me away," Davis said.
There's an elderly couple affiliated with the Route 6 Association in Massachusetts that has been following him on his journey, traveling ahead of him scouting out places he can stay. He calls them his "guardian angels."
Then there's the police agencies that have driven as a convoy with him along the way, as well as state police planning to escort him into West Virginia.
And there's the American woman who learned of his mission from his wife at the deli she works at back in Scotland and sought him out through Facebook offering to pay for his stay at the Barnstable Inn. Then there's the inn keeper who reimbursed that woman and instead donated money equal to the value of the room to the Wounded Warrior project.
Just a day into his passage through Connecticut, he already has some stories and has made some friends.
When he passed into Killingly Friday night, a friend from Worchester, Massachusetts had already called offering to come meet him in Connecticut. He stopped at an abandoned inn only to find a stranger sitting in the trunk of his car, playing guitar. The man, a Brooklyn, Connecticut veteran, had been following his Facebook page and went there to meet him and had offered to let him stay at his house. Two police cars were called in to ride with him. The caretaker of the inn also stopped at the parking lot to see why there were people there and Davis told him about what he is doing, gaining another friend.
Then in Danielson, a wheel snapped on the stroller Davis has with him. So, he called his new-found Brooklyn friend. While he waited for him to take him to a garage to get it fixed, a young disabled veteran named Ally came out of George's Galley Diner and bought him a sandwich. The Brooklyn veteran gave him a ride to a garage in Brooklyn, calling James Sorel in on his day off, according to Davis's Facebook page. He fixed his wheel for free.
The only issue Davis said he's run into along the way is people mistaking the British flag for the Confederate flag. Otherwise, he's had a mostly positive experience so far.
Davis expects to pass through the Hartford area by Monday and to cross the state line into New York on Tuesday or Wednesday.
Given the suicide rate in the U.S. alone for veterans battling PTSD, he said that's just a problem that simply can't continue. "The system's not perfect," Davis said, and nor would he expect it to be, but he said there "needs to be a vast improvement" in mental health care for soldiers and veterans.
“I’m passionate about this," Davis said.
You can find out more about his Not Broken - Just Damaged Walk Across America 2015 on his Facebook page or follow his Twitter handle, @neillydavis.You can also donate to Combat Stress through his JustGiving webpage or to the Wounded Warrior Project through his online page.