WASHINGTON -- Former Capt. Greg C. Washington is preparing to walk nearly 1,800 miles across 11 states to increase awareness on veteran suicide and pay respect to his two best friends killed in combat.
During "A Walk to Honor," Washington will depart from Mound Bayou, Mississippi, at the end of this month and stop in 25 cities before ending his journey at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, in September.
The trip will include 65 days of walking and 71 on-site days. With each stop, he will participate in a series of scheduled rallies as a call to action to local, state and military communities to help end veteran suicide, he said.
The walk will also pay tribute to 2nd Lt. Emily Perez and Capt. Scott Pace, two of his closest friends and fellow 2005 academy graduates, said Washington, who served seven years and deployed twice to Iraq.
"Scotty Pace and Emily Perez were two amazing people," Washington said during an interview Monday.
The three of them "were a peculiar bunch," he added, as they collectively pushed each other through all the "blood, sweat, and tears" to graduate West Point and become Army officers.
Pace was a combat pilot who died in Afghanistan when his OH-58D Kiowa Warrior crashed after being hit by Taliban fire in 2011. As a troop commander with the 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Pace was dispatched on a rescue mission where he helped save a group of Soldiers under enemy fire.
Washington recalled Pace's dedication to his Mormon faith, as he would often prioritize his church responsibilities before his West Point education. Pace was the kind of guy who was always looking out and caring for others, Washington said.
While she was at West Point, Perez became the highest ranking African-American female ever at the academy when she became the cadet command sergeant major, Washington said. In 2017, Simone Askew became the highest ranking African-American female cadet when she earned the title of first captain.
"When 9/11 happened, we were all freshmen," Washington said, as he recalled sitting next to Perez in class.
"The news came over the intercom that the Twin Towers had just been hit, and I remember Emily looking at me in shock,” he said. “I remember telling her, 'Hey, we are going to be OK.'"
As a lieutenant and medical officer, Perez was a member of the 4th Infantry Division out of Fort Carson, Colorado. She died while deployed to Iraq when an improvised explosive device hit her convoy. She was the first African-American female officer in U.S. military history to die in combat.
"I always remember one of the last moments that we had together, outside of graduation," Washington said. "We just had one of our ceremonies where we picked our [officer] branch.
"I remember us coming back and [giving] a toast to our future," he added. “It was just the three of us, and I didn't know that would be one of the last moments we would have together. I was so amazed and so grateful to have battle buddies and friends like them."
The military does a great job preparing you for war, however, it is hard for some service members to recover as they transition out of service, Washington said.
Like Washington, some veterans deal with the scars of physical or emotional trauma. For years, he said he struggled with depression and post-traumatic stress as he tried to rebound from the pain he experienced while in uniform.
Washington said he reached his lowest point in late 2011, as he dealt with many family issues before being blindsided by his mother's cancer diagnosis. He also felt constantly haunted by the deaths of his two friends.
"I remember there were so many days of just standing in the mirror and hearing their voices," Washington said. They would ask, "'Why didn't you do more; why weren't you there; why didn't you save us?'
"All I could say was, 'I'm sorry. I wish I could have done more. I wish I could have been there.’ That shame [and] that guilt -- it will weigh heavy on any soul."
Overcome by emotions as if there was no way out, Washington thought it was time to end his own life as he grasped tightly onto a loaded gun, he said.
“The struggle was real with PTSD and complicated grief. Between the chronic physical pain, the moral injuries, and survivor’s remorse, every day is a fight,” he added. “I just wanted it to end. I was suffering in silence wondering if it was ever going to be a normal day where I'm not in some form of pain.”
It was at that moment Washington's phone rang. On the other line was his youngest cousin, who wanted him to go out shopping with her.
"She called me up, not even knowing that she was my saving grace," Washington said, as he snapped back to reality and joined her. "She had no clue what I was about to go through."
Washington eventually realized that the voices were asking him to do more to help those in need. Leaders within the military, local communities and families "need to show up" to curb the growing number of military and veteran suicides, he said.
"Veterans make up 14% of all deaths by suicide, despite only making up 8% of the U.S. population," Washington wrote on his nonprofit’s website. "Many veterans who have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and complicated grief find it hard to seek the support they need."
Veterans like one former Soldier and West Point grad who livestreamed his death last year. As Washington watched the event unfold, he immediately mustered all available resources and connected through his veteran network to find the individual's location and get him support.
Washington and other graduates like Dr. John Thurman and his wife Audrey, a certified physician assistant, sprang into action to try to reach him and provide help. Through their efforts, they were able to notify the paramedics so he wasn't alone during his final few hours.
Seeing the veteran’s struggle and cry for help reminded Washington of his own fight against that negative self-talk, guilt, and shame -- a conflict he still battles today.
"For me, that was the last straw," Washington said. "I think about how I want to leave this world in a better state for my family. We have to do something, no matter how big or how small."
Walk to spread awareness, pay respect
Suicide is a continual mental health crisis across the U.S. that extends beyond the veteran community, Washington said.
To raise awareness and help save veterans’ lives, Washington organized a call to action as the founder of a nonprofit called "House of Man" and through his upcoming 1,800-mile trek from Mound Bayou to West Point.
He said he is determined to create a stigma-free culture surrounding a service member's mental health journey so they can receive support.
"I don't think there's one person that has not dealt with trauma or grief," Washington said. "Someone knows a veteran, friend, or family member that has been through a traumatic experience or has lost someone. This is one of those campaigns that everybody can stand behind and rally towards."
Mental health awareness events, both in person or through virtual panels, are scheduled to occur at various stops, Washington said.
"I am calling on every veteran from the lowest rank ... up to the general officers to support this cause," he said. "I strongly believe that we can make enough noise … to end veteran suicide."
Current and former military personnel should never suffer in silence as they deal with their grief, depression, or post-traumatic stress, Washington added. He hopes the walk and rallies will highlight the local and state mental health and support services available to veterans.
Veterans should also have a support plan, Washington said, that includes a community of friends, medical providers, or counselors they can call upon at a moment's notice.
Immediate support can also be found by calling the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and pressing one. Veterans can also text 838255 or chat through the Veterans Crisis Line website anytime.
"It will be a chance for the community as a whole to come together … so that people can get the help and support they need," he said.
The trip is scheduled to end during Suicide Prevention Month in September, concluding with a rally at West Point.
"I want our young leaders to know the fold that they're coming into," Washington said as he explained a return to his alma mater. "To be able to lead our young men and women, it's such a great honor. [But] they need to know and be prepared for what lies ahead."
The walk’s primary mission is to get people who are suffering to start their own journeys to heal and to reach out for help, he said. The walk is also an opportunity to honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, especially Perez and Pace, as he plans to make additional stops at Fort Bragg and the 9/11 memorial.
"I always believe that a person dies twice: once in the physical form and again the last time their name is spoken," Washington said. "This is my way of honoring my two best friends."