A Marine Corps veteran made his way through Greenwood and other parts of Sebastian County and northeast Oklahoma on Saturday as part of a 2,700-mile walk to raise money and awareness in support of two nonprofit organizations helping veterans.
Justin Kuhel, 26, of Columbus, Ohio, started his journey at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and plans to walk to Camp Pendleton in California. The goal is to raise $100,000 for the Headstrong Project, which provides free mental health care to veterans, and Help Our Military Heroes, an organization dedicated to making modified vehicles for wounded veterans.
The walk is part of Kuhel’s March Across America endeavor. Kuhel said he became inspired after he saw the documentary "Hell and Back Again," which chronicled Sgt. Nathan Harris’ transition to home life following serious injury during his deployment to Afghanistan in 2009.
Kuhel was on patrol with Harris’ unit, Marine Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment.
"I remember when he got shot; I remember loading him on the Bird (helicopter)," Kuhel said.
Kuhel served with the Marines from 2006-10, joining right after high school. He was deployed to Iraq in 2007, where he spent seven months. He spent eight months overseas in Afghanistan in 2009.
After Kuhel saw the documentary, he walked 400 miles from March to April 2012, starting in his hometown of Columbus and heading to Arlington National Cemetery as a benefit for the Wounded Warrior Project.
"It made me want to do something," he said. "I had never been to Arlington. I had a couple buddies who are buried there, so I decided I might as well walk. That was such a positive experience that I wanted to duplicate it on a little bit of a larger scale this time."
After selecting the Headstrong Project and Help Our Military Heroes organizations, Kuhel learned that purely by coincidence, Help Our Military Heroes had chosen one of his fellow Marines, who had been paralyzed in combat, for their modified-vehicle program.
Kuhel said he not only wants to raise money for the organizations, but also awareness. Many of his fellow veterans go unaware that programs are in place to help them, he said.
"It easily could’ve been me. Easily," Kuhel said. "It’s just a matter of stepping one way or another way, or getting up when I should’ve gotten down. I could’ve been anything. I would want somebody to do the same thing for me."
The best part of the journey has been meeting new people, especially fellow veterans, Kuhel said. So far he has raised about $30,000 of the $100,000 goal.
"I’m going to all these new places I’ve never been, which is awesome," he said. "I never thought I’d spend my 26th birthday in Little Rock, Arkansas. It’s afforded me opportunities to do new things that I would never get to do."
One of his fellow veterans — a double Purple Heart recipient — came to see him when he was in Memphis. Although he had not seen the man in four years, it felt like only a day had gone by, Kuhel said.
"There’s nothing that compares to the bond that combat makes," he said. "I wish I was better at describing it, but it’s almost indescribable. Once you’ve been in combat with somebody, you guys are going to be bound together for the rest of your lives."
To make a donation, go to Kuhel’s website, www.marchacrossamerica.org. You can also follow his journey on Twitter, @MarchAcrossUSA.