Retired Staff Sgt. Van Booth’s mission of “Walking for Life” across the United States has taken him more than 1,000 miles into the 3,000-mile healing pilgrimage. He began the walk Feb. 23 on the west coast. During this challenge of a lifetime, his goal is to create awareness for veterans and active duty military in need, and to raise money for Operation Song.
In an interview with The Times in April 2018, Booth explained his plan and mission as he physically trained for this epic walk that started in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. While pushing a heavy cart containing five gallons of water and all his provisions, he walks along the highways, over snow-capped mountains, across deserts and through all kinds of weather, as he makes his way to Myrtle Beach, S.C.
“I’m great physically —I’ve lost 30 pounds,” he said during a recent phone interview. On a good day he might average 27 miles per day but other days it may only be 15 to 20 miles, depending on the weather, incline, or if he stops to see a friend, an attraction along the way or does an interview with media.
In Nevada he walked along the Pony Express Trail, over the mountains and into Utah on May 11. He reached the summit of Monarch Pass — elevation 11,312 feet — and hiked across The Great Continental Divide along the Rocky Mountain range.
In the desert he slept under the big sky filled with stars. When he’s closer to civilization, he occasionally stays at a camping area or motel and takes in some of the local attractions.
“It’s been wonderful,” he said in a phone interview on June 24. At the time, he was in Gunnison, Colo., approaching his final 42-mile climb up the Rocky Mountains.
In Delta, Colo., he stopped to pay his respects at The Traveling Vietnam Wall. Along the way, he’s talks to folks about veterans’ issues. Thus far, he’s been interviewed by Fox News, radio stations and other media outlets regarding Operation Song.
Though several places are among his favorites, Montrose, Colo., stands out. “It was one of the most veteran centric towns.” said Booth.
From Colorado, he will walk through Kansas and then continue through six more states. He plans to be in Fayetteville by September and make South Carolina by Veterans’ Day in November.
At times other veterans and friends join him along the way, and through a friend’s connection, he had the opportunity to speak on stage during a Country Jam in Utah to around 40,000 people about “Walking for Life” and Operation Song. Operation Song is a 501(c) (3) nonprofit based in Nashville with the mission to empower veterans, active duty military and their families to tell their stories through the process of songwriting.
Operation Song pairs professional songwriters with veterans, active military and their families. By using the power of music, it helps vets heal as they tell their personal stories through song, and it also memorializes those who were killed. Booth took part in Operation Iraqi Freedom and served in three combat tours, and after a 20-year career, he retired from the U.S. Army in 2016. He was diagnosed with PTSD and returned to Fayetteville.
Operation Song, he said, in a Facebook post saved his life. It has helped him and many others cope with the memories and the comrades they lost. His song, “I Walk for Them”, was recorded one year ago and will be reproduced on CDs that can be distributed to radio stations and others to create a greater awareness for Operation Song. So far Booth has raised more than $7,000 for the nonprofit.
On his Twitter page, “Walking for Life”, he posts, “I walk for them, every step of the way, from shore to shore, across the USA.” He posts new photos of his journey on Facebook nearly every day.
Even after 1,000 miles of walking, Booth is wearing the same hiking boots he started with, but he may require a new pair before the end of the next 2,000 miles.