“We’ve been calling him Forrest Gump, because that’s kind of what he looks like,” Stephens’ father Doug said.
A Hall native and a Marine, Stephens finished his seventh day Wednesday of daily 22-mile hikes, a number representing the often-cited statistic of veteran suicides each day. In July 2016, the Department of Veterans Affairs wrote an average of 20 veterans died from suicide each day in 2014.
“The (posttraumatic stress disorder) is real. The suicide is real. Everything is real and true, and I just want them to know that I’m out here because I care,” Shane Stephens said.
Stephens embarked Jan. 11 from Minnesott Beach in North Carolina and will end at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
“I felt led to do this. I felt that it was laid upon my heart, and I was not going to ignore that. So here I am, on the side of the road,” he said.
Since the start, Stephens’ feet swelled two sizes and lost skin on his pinky toes. Taking tips from a hiking buddy, he wrapped his toes in zebra-print kinesiology tape — the only pattern he could find.
“When I take my socks off, (my feet) look like zebra-print tape all over them and powder and blood,” Stephens said.
His mission was inspired by friends who are suffering from PTSD, who call in the middle of the night “suffering with their demons” from the disorder.
“I can’t imagine what is going through their head, but all I know is I talk to them all night long. I try to do anything I can to keep them from putting a freaking pistol in their mouth,” he said.
Stephens said he had to do something about the treatment of veterans coming back stateside.
“I got sick — physically sick — … of seeing the suicide rate. I got sick of seeing the treatment. I’m sick of seeing how the (Department of Veterans Affairs) is treating my brothers and my sisters who are sick and need help,” he said.
Doug Stephens said his son is the “most gung-ho boy I think I’ve ever met.”
“Since Shane was around 7 years old, he’s been a Marine,” he said. “He has been all his life, so it was no surprise to me when he joined the Marines after high school.”
His mission is one of hope, Stephens said, as he posts his updates and sights on Facebook for people to see. A wheelchair-bound veteran messaged him to say the trek has been inspiration to “stand up and learn how to walk again.”
All from his cellphone, Stephens chronicles his hikes as other service members join his journey.
“Before I even got off of my phone, I’ve got 30 more notifications,” he said.
As he marches with his 30-pound pack for the final few days, Stephens said he expects a large group waiting for him near Jacksonville, N.C.
“I’ll probably get quite a few people with me over the next three days,” Stephens said. “And that’s great. That’s what this is all about.”