Walk 500 Miles in My Shoes: Vet turns leisurely stroll into a journey of self-discovery

Story By Dan Aznoff | Photo by Rich Hennings | Article Provided by Coeur d’Alene Living Local

Army veteran Rich Henning showed his respect to the first responders of 9/11 by doing what comes naturally. He took a walk.

Henning wanted to duplicate the effort of the emergency teams that responded to the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center that ominous morning by climbing 104 flights of stairs. Unfortunately, there are very few buildings with that many floors east of the Cascades.

So instead, he did the next best thing. He found an 18-story building and climbed the stairs top to bottom six times for a total of 110 floors.
“Did the extra for those who perished,” he posted on his Facebook blog.

Henning, who has found personal satisfaction with his career as a professional chef, has been lacing up his shoes and pounding the pavement since his retirement from the US Army after 22 years of active service.

His latest cause has been walking to raise money and raise awareness of soldiers who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In September, he put together the Inland NW Heroes Golf Tournament to provide support for local veterans. In July he walked 13 miles with a 50-pound ruck with a group of vets known as the Irreverent Warriors. He finished the trek in San Diego while maintaining a rapid pace with the declaration, “Too easy, Drill Sergeant. Too easy.”

He admits his own battle with the disorder seems inconsequential compared to soldiers returning from a combat zone, but his personal battle to overcome the ailment has been no less agonizing.

The only time he actually took up arms in combat was in a skirmish in Turkey with Kurdish rebels. He earned his battle scars during the 13 years he spent serving under what he described as “abusive leadership” in the difficult environment with the recruiting command.

“My combat was not extensive, but I did come away with many of the same issues,” Henning said. “Ended up in the VA Hospital, where I received help to address my issues and overcome many of my issues.”
Henning wanted to share his discovery with the thousands of other veterans who face the same dilemma without any hope for the future.

“There was a way out of the darkness,” he said. “There are so many agencies and programs out there for veterans. Unfortunately, too many of them go unused or underutilized.”

500 miles

After evaluating the situation with his wife, the Army vet decided to walk. This was not just any walk, but a stroll around his home state of Washington. In the end Henning decided to walk 500 miles around the state to further his cause.

Henning left his home in the Palouse and headed to the state capital with his knapsack and an American flag.

He “flipped the map” and began his expedition in Olympia, strolled along sidewalks and busy highways north to Seattle, turned east and made his way through Issaquah, over the pass to Ellensburg where he turned north toward Leavenworth, then made a hard right and followed the road until he made it back to Coeur d’Alene.
“I had hoped to cover 20 miles per day. In the end I averaged 16 to 17 miles per day,” he said proudly.

Along the way I had the opportunity to share my story with some really great people and picked up support from local organizations.”

Box of chocolates

He was sustained along the way by his wife, Abby, who scouted the road ahead of him in their camper or trailed him along long stretches of highway. The couple had breakfast together in the camper every morning.

With a smile and a laugh, Henning remembered people he met along the way who compared his effort to the fictional character Forrest Gump.

“He walked across the country,” said Henning. “I only covered 500 miles within Washington. But the similarities cannot be denied. We both walked in search of answer we could not find on our own.

“And it was the people along the way who opened our eyes to the possibilities.”

The trek for Henning took 23 days. He walked every day except for July 4, which he took off to “hang out” by celebrating the birthday of America in the city of Liberty.
“That was just an extraordinary coincidence,” he said. “But a great one as it turns out.”

Before he took the first step of his journey, Henning established a GoFundMe account to help offset his expenses and establish the Have a Heart Foundation. The website did not meet its goal of $10,000, however, Henning did generate $2,600 for the project and came home with cash leftover. He plans to supplement the unused funds into $500 scholarships for veterans.

Henning documented his journey with his own video that he hopes to produce so it can be shown in waiting rooms at the VA Hospital.

“What an incredible experience,” he said, recalling how people bought him food and bottles of water as he walked along the highway.

Henning said his wife never paid more than $25 to stay in campgrounds after the operators listened to the inspiration behind his walk.

“Abby and I have kept in contact with the people we met along the way,” Henning concluded. “Walking is my therapy. Hopefully my efforts will benefit others as much as it has helped me.” 

Dan Aznoff is a freelance writer based in Mukilteo, Washington. He can be reached at [email protected].