PERU — Eric Peters is on a 2,700-mile mission.
As a 23-year-old Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, Peters is used to missions. But this one is personal.
Thirty-five days ago, he started a cross-country trek from his home in Clark, New Jersey, that will eventually land him in California.
On Thursday, his path brought him through Peru, where he’s dropped his 100-pound pack and full-size American flag for a few days, and given his feet a much needed rest at a Best Western Hotel along U.S. 31.
But the mission isn’t about the nearly 3,000-mile hike. Peters is using the trip to talk to anyone who will listen about a disorder he says is woefully misunderstood — post-traumatic stress disorder.
It’s one he said is killing dozens of soldiers every day.
“Over 26 veterans are committing suicide today,” he said. “That’s like 26 of my brothers and sisters committing suicide, and families are left with just a letter from the V.A. saying, ‘Sorry, we couldn’t help your son or daughter or wife or father.’ I don’t like to see people screw over my brothers and sisters.”
And Peters knows what he’s talking about.
In 2011, he was deployed to Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne Division. He was eating breakfast one day in a base near the Pakistan border, when missile fire rained down from the mountains.
Peters and the rest of the troops near the attack were all knocked out. When he came to, he wasn’t the same man.
Peters said he couldn’t remember his childhood, and had a hard time recalling memories from his past. It was frightening.
“Basically, all my happy memories were taken from me and flushed down the toilet,” he said.
When Peters returned to the U.S. in October of last year, he was in bad shape. He couldn’t sleep. He was always on edge. Thunder or loud noises frightened him.
Two weeks after arriving home, some kids setting off fireworks down the street sent Peters into a six-day spin in which he locked himself in his bedroom and wouldn’t eat or sleep. His brother had to kick down the door to get him.
He knew he was suffering from PTSD, and Peters said he wasn’t getting the help he needed from the V.A. hospital.
But instead of letting the disorder keep him down, he decided to walk.
“I thought, ‘I can walk. I’m healthy. I just got out of the military. And I’m comfortable talking to people from the left and right. So, why not?”
He started out in New Jersey, and ended up heading through Pennsylvania, where he said he ran into two different veterans also suffering from PTSD.
He said one had turned to alcohol, and would blindly stare at the front yard for hours.
“That was his way of dealing,” Peters said.
He stayed with another veteran for a few days who also was struggling with the disorder. A week after he started walking again, Peters said he got a phone call from the man’s wife, saying her husband had killed himself.
“He wrote a letter with my name in it,” he said. “It said, ‘I’m sorry.’”
After Pennsylvania, Peters passed through Ohio and finally hit Peru.
It’s in Peru where he ran into Jon Coby, a local veteran who also served in Afghanistan with the Army National Guard.
The 25-year-old said he also knew a lot of guys who came back from the service seriously messed up. He said one of his sergeants ended up committing suicide.
And that’s why Coby decided he was going to walk with Peters all the way to California.
“This is kind of a bucket-list thing for me, but it’s also for a really, really good cause,” he said.
The two will take off from Peru on Monday and head to Springfield, Illinois, where Peters said they’re meeting up with another veteran who served with him overseas. He’s also joining the walk.
The trek has been pretty successful so far, Peters said — and for him that means he’s been able to talk to people about PTSD. There have been newspaper reporters, radio DJs and people he meets on the streets or at convenience stores.
Most of the time when he’s out on the road, Peters said he ends up meeting someone who lets him stay at a house, so he hasn’t had to camp out too often.
He’s got hunting and fishing gear in case he ever needs it, he said, but mostly he just eats the giant stash of beef jerky stuffed into his pack.
The journey’s been good, but Peters said it hasn’t done much to help soothe the anxiety and memory loss brought on by his PTSD.
“There’s been nights when I couldn’t sleep, so I’ll just get up and walk through the night,” he said. “The night’s peaceful, and I love the stars. There are other nights where I sleep like a baby, but I wake up with anxiety and I think I’m under attack.”
Peters still has a long way to go on his cross-country trip. He’s finished about 720 miles so far, and has another 2,000 to go.
But he’ll get there, he said, and hopefully leave a wake of awareness about PTSD behind him.
“I’m not trying to beat any record,” Peters said. “I just want to get across the country, take my time and talk to the people I can talk to and get my point across.
“I don’t care if people know my name. I don’t care if people know my face. I just want people to know the cause I’m walking for,” he said.