CAMP ATTERBURY, Ind. (May 17, 2010) -- Iraq combat veteran Troy Yocum is walking 7,000 miles across the nation, banging his drum, gathering followers and trying to meet his goal of raising $5 million for U.S. veterans and their families in need.
His 16-month journey, dubbed "The Drum Hike," began April 17 at the Kentucky Derby "Thunder Over Louisville" celebration. So far, he has traveled more than 400 miles, stopping to gain support at military installations, small towns and big cities.
Yokum returned to Louisville, Ky., for the Kentucky Derby. From there he has pushed north into Indiana, stopping at Camp Atterbury. He also participated in the OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon in downtown Indianapolis May 8.
It wasn't by chance that Yocum chose to serve in the military. His family has a long line of Army veterans, including his uncle who served in the Vietnam War, as well as his grandfather and four great uncles who served in World War II.
Yokum decided to join the Indiana National Guard as an infantryman and enlisted on Aug. 21, 2001, just 22 days before the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
"It felt really great to follow in the footsteps of my family members," said Yocum. "I wanted to prove myself."
Yocum said he feels an obligation to help his fellow servicemembers after serving two years with the Indiana National Guard's 151st Infantry Regiment and deploying to Iraq and Kuwait November 2008 through August 2009.
Inspired by his World War II veteran grandfather who took his own life, and a close military friend who lost his home after returning from deployment, Yocum decided to make it his personal mission to find ways to help struggling veterans.
He was honorably discharged from the military on Jan. 5, but his service carried on.
"After my contract was up, I signed a new one," said Yocum. "I signed up for a 16-month, 7,000-mile hike across America to help military families. Now, I am a Soldier for the Soldiers."
He began planning his hike while deployed to Iraq. "Some played video games to pass the time," said Yocum. "Some read, some wrote. I looked for ways to raise money for charities."
Yocum has raised the money necessary to fund the walk through sponsors like Soldier's Angels, and many other organizations and businesses.
With the money donated by sponsors, he was able to acquire a recreational vehicle to trail him along his hike, providing him shelter when needed, medical supplies inside and food and water.
Armed with the bare essentials for the estimated 50 million steps it will take to walk across the country, Yocum's plan to return his gratitude to servicemembers is slowly becoming a reality.
"The momentum is growing every single day," said Yocum. "The support has been amazing. Our Facebook [support] page is growing 400 to 800 people a day. I really want to succeed in earning the $5 million."
Raising funds for the troops is not the only goal in Yocum's mission. Additionally, he and Soldier's Angels are working to create a new nationally recognized holiday for deployed Soldiers.
During his hike he carries a Louisville Slugger baseball bat, donated by Louisville Slugger, his first sponsor. His bat doubles as a petition, which he has had signed by governors, congressmen and military officials along his hike. Yocum plans to bring the petition bat to Congress as he walks through Washington, D.C.
"You can file away a piece of paper and forget about it," said Yocum smiling. "I figure they can't file away a baseball bat."
During his trek through Indiana, his bat gained several signatures including Medal of Honor recipient Hershel Woodrow "Woody" Williams, as well as Indianapolis Mayor Gregory A. Ballard and Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels at the mini-marathon in Indianapolis, May 8.
In addition to politicians, Yocum will be visiting with veteran support groups, wounded warriors and families of servicemembers who've made the ultimate sacrifice overseas.
He isn't making this trip alone. He is accompanied by his new wife Mareike whom he married May 2, about 256 miles into the hike.
"I care about these families that are struggling," said Mareike. "I feel very honored that I could be a part of this. It's amazing how many great people we meet every day, how many comments we get on Facebook every day. At times it brings tears to my eyes. We want to help these people as much as we can."
His best friend Terry Carmickle is also making the trip. Carmickle has 10 year's experience as an emergency medical technician and will provide medical aide during the 16-month adventure.
"When he asked me to come along, I instantly knew the answer," said Carmickle. "Of course it was yes. It's a dream come true traveling the country and helping people."
Also providing support and walking beside Yocum is his dog Emmie, a Japanese Shiba Inu. Emmie is a working therapy dog certified by the Penny's From Heaven Foundation to provide companionship to those in need.
Additionally, Vietnam War veteran and "Purple Heart Parachutist" Dallas Wittgenfeld drops in on the hike. Wittgenfeld served during the Vietnam War years in the same battalion as Yocum, the 151st Infantry "War Hawks." Showing his support for Yocum, he plans on parachuting into events along the Drum Hike route, waving his giant American Flag.
Wittgenfeld donated a very special gift to Yocum's cause. He gave Yocum his Vietnam War-era Army ammunition can. Wittgenfeld personally used the can to help collect the first million dollars donated to build the Vietnam War Memorial. He stood on the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., with Jan Scruggs, founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, and collected the first donations. Yocum now uses the ammunition can to collect donations for his cause while on the road.
"I haven't worn my uniform since the Vietnam War," said Wittgenfeld, "I've never wanted to. I'm wearing it today for the Drum Hiker. I want to spread the word and support for him because we never had that when I served."
Wittgenfeld drove his van from his home near Daytona, Fla., back to Indiana "War Hawks" country with his 288-square-foot American Flag waving from his rear bumper to link up with Yocum and show his support.
Yocum said he was floored when Wittgenfeld contacted him about parachuting into the cities as he hiked.
"I started reading about Dallas and realized this man has been through a lot. He understands the plight of American military families," said Yocum.
More than $40,000 has been donated to the Drum Hike's cause in less than three weeks since the beginning of the walk. Yocum said the momentum continues to build as more people become aware of the cause. He believes his early success is due to the support of his loved ones around him.
"Quite honestly, I never thought that thousands of people would be following this story and we're in just the birth of the hike," said Yocum. "It's amazing how many thousands of people that have come out to walk with us, shake my hand, tell me thank you."
"It's overwhelming, but in a good sense," said Carmickle. "I'm grateful to so many people like Dallas here, Vietnam veterans, Korean War veterans, that we can raise these funds and awareness to give them the respect and honor that they didn't get when they got home. It's such a good thing to know that people actually appreciate what we're doing and that gives us the motivation to continue on with our goal."
Yocum said that he didn't expect anyone to join him on his mission of walking 7,000 miles. He feels blessed to have the support of his wife and friends.
"I'm lucky enough to have a best friend to come with me. I'm lucky enough to have found a girl that loves me enough to marry me and come out on the road with me and I'm lucky enough to link up with good people like Dallas here that have been helpful in so many ways."
Along with the support from loved ones, veterans and citizens, Yocum has also felt the flipside to that coin; however, he believes it's all relative.
"I've had people yell at me as I'm walking down the road, flip me off and cuss me out," said Yocum. "I've had negative things written about me and my cause. You're gonna get that when dealing in something like this. But for every time something like that happens, there are a hundred people that shake my hand and thank me."
"As long as I accomplish my goal of raising the $5 million, I don't care about any of that. Every day that I'm out there walking, getting sunburned, rained on, yelled at or almost hit by cars, the thought of our veterans and American military families gives me the drive to take the next step and make it over that next hill."
After departing Indiana, Yocum and his team will head to Chicago, then south to St. Louis, west to Los Angeles, back east through Washington, D.C. , to Boston and finally make their way back home, all the while, stopping through several other major cities along the way. The hike is scheduled to come to an end in August of 2011 in Louisville.
Soldier's Angels are working on a "text to donate" program for the cause. Yocum's website is www.drumhike.com and his Facebook site at www.facebook.com/HikeForOurHeroes tracks his progress, whereabouts and upcoming events.
(John Crosby serves with Camp Atterbury Public Affairs.)