For the last 2½ months, 71-year-old Air Force veteran William Shuttleworth has been walking across America to raise money and awareness for veterans' issues.
On Wednesday, Shuttleworth walked the 30-plus miles down from a campground on Grand Mesa into Grand Junction. For the next three days, Shuttleworth will be taking a well-earned rest in the city with his wife, who is flying in to see him. The last time they'd been together was when he was crossing Missouri.
"It means everything. Patty is my soulmate," Shuttleworth said. "She has been so supportive of this."
By "this," Shuttleworth means his more than 3,000-mile trek from Massachusetts to California on a mission to connect with veteran communities and spread the word about the issues they are facing, as well as raise $100,000 for veteran causes.
The idea for the coast-to-coast walk came after Shuttleworth worked last summer running a state park campground in California. The campground reserved three spaces for the homeless, many of whom were veterans.
"They were almost all homeless veterans sitting at my picnic table day in and day out," Shuttleworth said. "They were suicidal, depressed. They were on drugs and alcohol. They couldn't get any VA services because they didn't have the right paperwork. They didn't have the right mailing address. The rigamarole, the red tape was so overwhelming that they had just given up."
When Shuttleworth returned to his Newburyport, Massachusetts home, he told his wife he wanted to do something. He decided to turn his daily routine — walking a lot — into a campaign for veterans.
"I was in really great shape for my age and walked 20 miles a day," Shuttleworth said. "Why not walk 20 miles across the country to build a grassroots coalition to reignite this spirit of awareness for what veterans need?"
Shuttleworth has done slightly better than 20 miles a day. He's averaging 30 miles a day. His longest distance so far is 52 miles — two marathons in a single day. Along the way, he's stopped at American Legion Posts, VFW Halls, diners and living rooms to talk with veterans. Over the next few days, Shuttleworth said he plans to meet with veterans groups in the Grand Valley, as well as visit the VA Hospital and the Veterans Art Center.
American Legion Department of Colorado Cmdr. Dean Noechel is also in Grand Junction this week for a visit with Western Slope Legion chapters, and he met with Shuttleworthon Wednesday. Noechel, who also met Shuttleworth as he walked through Denver, said Colorado communities have received Shuttleworth positively and praised him for raising awareness of issues facing veterans.
He also commended Western Slope residents for their support for veterans.
"The vets in this community are true patriots," Noechel said. "My theme this year is reigniting patriotism. Seeing all those flags waving all over town tells me people in this community haven't forgotten that this is the home of the free because of the brave."
Shuttleworth, when meeting with groups like the American Legion, talks about the five areas he focuses on: Eliminating veteran homelessness, addressing veteran suicides, guaranteeing veterans high quality medical care, electing more veterans and increasing pay for enlistees.
Before his trip, Shuttleworth said he knew the needs of veterans were being unmet, but over the course of his journey he's realized the scope of the problem is much larger than he realized.
Without the drive to bring this need to light, Shuttleworth said he wasn't sure he'd have made it this far.
"Not many people can say they walked from the East Coast to Colorado to the Rockies and then walk over them," Shuttleworth said. "I never thought I would. I never thought the potential would be there, but this cause is so important to me it's effortless at times."
While Shuttleworth said he plans to meet as many veterans in town as he can, he's still planning to set aside time to be with his wife and see the sights, like Colorado National Monument.
"My wife doesn't want me to do too much," Shuttleworth said. "She hasn't seen me in a long time, so she says, 'Your style is to overbook yourself. Save me some time so we can be alone.' "
After resting up in Grand Junction, Shuttleworth will head farther west, crossing into Utah. He said he plans to head south toward Flagstaff, Arizona, hoping for somewhat cooler temperatures. From there he will head toward Vandenberg Air Force Base in California — his final destination.
If you see him between here and there, say "hello." You can recognize him by the well-worn backpack sporting a sign reading "Vets don't forget vets."
"My backpack has served me well," Shuttleworth said. "It only weighs 30 pounds. Although I do think somebody puts a cement block in it in the afternoon. It can get pretty heavy."
You can follow Shuttleworth's progress, contact him or donate to his cause at vetsdontforgetvets.com.