Justin Kuhel, 26, of Columbus, Ohio, started his 2,700 mile 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. Kuhel became inspired after he saw the documentary “Hell and Back Again,” which showcased Sgt. Nathan Harris’ transition to life at home, following debilitating injury during his deployment to Afghanistan in 2009. Kuhel was on patrol with Harris’ unit, Marine Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. Kuhel served with the Marines from 2006-10 and was deployed to Iraq in 2007 and Afghanistan in 2009.
“I remember when he got shot; I remember loading him on the Bird (helicopter),” Kuhel said.
In 2012, 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. He ended up raising over $13,000.
“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.”
“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.”