Cpl. Frankie Perez hit rock bottom in 2008 and tried to end his life. He had spent the last 10 years suffering in silence – battling post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury – and he didn’t see a way out of the darkness.
“I was dead for over 30 hours in a VA hospital,” Perez told Fox News on Thursday. “And I’m back from that darkness and (now) I am willing to share some of this with others so they know that it doesn’t matter how dark your day might be, you can make it happen.”
Perez, a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico who joined the Army in 2001 as a member of the Puerto Rico National Guard, was one of six veterans who completed a 1,000-mile walk across the country to raise awareness about the silent battles affecting soldiers returning from war.
“It’s a dream (to do this). (As) a veteran who has been struggling with this condition for a while – since 2004 – it is amazing to see and be part of the change in mental health for veterans and their families,” said Perez, who founded the Post Traumatic Art Foundation in Puerto Rico, which offers therapy through art and music to other veterans in the community.
“We have over 150,000 veterans with just one VA in Puerto Rico. We are not getting the support that we should have and that is something that I am really focusing on.”
The six veterans – three from the United States and three from the United Kingdom – culminated their heroic walk by placing a wreath by the Survivor Tree at the 9/11 Memorial in New York City on Thursday before making their way a few short blocks to the Queen Elizabeth II Memorial Garden.
The walk, which began on June 2 in Los Angeles, was organized by the U.K. military charity Walking with the Wounded. The Walk of America expedition was inspired by the vision of U.K. Expedition Patron Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex.
Their 3-month tour of the United States took them through parts of California, Texas, Colorado, Ohio, Wyoming, Tennessee, Illinois, Missouri, Georgia, Florida, the Carolinas, the nation’s capital and Pennsylvania before finishing up in New York City.
Along the way they met countless veterans, who also shared their stories of the struggles they face after returning from the battlefield.
“I was wounded in 2006. I lost my right eye, I lost my partner (Dan) and Jessie our driver and it wasn’t until four years later that I was diagnosed with my minor brain injury, PTSD and depression,” U.S. Air Force Master sergeant Adele Loar, who also completed the incredible journey, told Fox News. “So throughout all the time, I was battling it on my own.”
She said it took her a long time to figure out why she never wanted to leave the house and why she was crying all the time – “I hated people who cried and I became one of them,” she recalled.
“It wasn’t until two non-profit organizations helped me understand that it was OK that I survived because for eight years I was pissed I lived,” Loar said. “Every day I swore that if there was a God I would not wake up. (And now) to come back and raise awareness that it’s OK to seek help. We are losing too many of our friends.”
Loar, the only woman on the Walk of America expedition, said one of her missions during the last three months was also to remind people that there were women in combat, many of whom also returned stateside suffering from the same mental health issues as their male counterparts.
“It’s not even if we’re wounded. Sometimes people forget we’re in the military,” she said. “Even along this walk, people would come up to shake the hands of the guys and turn their back to me… It was important to show that we need the same help as our male counterparts and not forget that we exist.”
For the final walk on Thursday, the team – made up of Perez, Loar, U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Larry Hinkle, Royal Logistics Corps Kev Carr, Royal Signals Kemsley Whittlesea and Royal Anglian Jonny Burns – were joined by former Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden, who were representing the Biden Foundation.
“This has been an inspiration. This has been a journey of courage, love and kindness and I am so proud to have played a small role,” Dr. Biden said during remarks at the Queen Elizabeth II Memorial Garden. “Today marks the end of this walk but the work must continue. We must all play a part in raising awareness of the mental health needs of services members, veterans and their families.”
She later told Fox News that these men and woman were such an inspiration to her and her family – much like her son, Beau, who joined the military in 2003 as a member of the Delaware Army National Guard. Beau died in 2015 at the age of 46 after battling brain cancer.
“We saw his strength and his resilience. All these men and women are just like my son,” Dr. Biden said. “They possess strong characters. That resilience and that grit and courage and that’s who they are. They are sharing their stories and they are so brave.”
Kev Carr, who struggled with homelessness and contemplated suicide after he was discharged from the military 14 years ago, said Walking with the Wounded saved his life. He now lives in The Beacon, a specialized veterans’ center in Catterick Garrison that helps homeless veterans or those at risk of becoming homeless. Jonny Burns also lives there.
“The things I was going through – I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, civilian or military or an enemy,” he told Fox News. “It was dark. I was in a dark place. I attempted suicide, but speaking out I’ve learned that, not only does it help me, it can help others.”
The former vice president added, “It takes courage to come out and say, ‘Look, I’m battling internally, emotional problems with having to deal with what I went through. Every city they went into, you can be certain as they walked, there was a wounded warrior who was thinking, ‘if they can do this, let the whole world see it, maybe I should say I need help. I need help with my demons.”
Each member of the Walk of America expedition had their own journey and story of struggle and success to share with the world. For them it was more than just raising money for the charities, but to make sure that the many times forgotten heroes – men and women – who return from the battlefield are given the help they need.
“We have spent lifetimes working together, fighting alongside each other and protecting each other,” Prince Harry said in a message to the group shared on their Facebook page after they completed their walk. “And it’s people like you that we can look at ways of recovering together. It may be an overused cliché but we genuinely stronger together and you are the proof of that.”
To learn more at Walking with the Wounded or to donate, visit their website here.