215-mile walk along coast to raise awareness for homeless vets, abandoned dogs

By ERIKA I. RITCHIE | The Orange County Register | Published: September 8, 2018

(Tribune News Service) — Two Marine Corps veterans and a female body builder were well into a 215-mile hike – from Ventura to San Diego – to create awareness for the plight of homeless veterans, when they considered giving up after four days of carrying 50-pound backpacks and a large American flag.

"We had left Point Mugu, walked from Ventura to Malibu and were just hating life thinking we can't sustain it," said Kalani Creutzburg, a 36-year-old retired major. "At first, when you put that kind of weight on, it's not a big deal but after 40 miles, we had blisters and our muscles were locking up. We were thinking of giving up."

That's when Creutzburg, founder of Cammies & Canines, a San Diego nonprofit dedicated to helping homeless veterans and homeless dogs, received a Facebook message from a stranger.

It was Ethan Martinez, a captain with the Orange County Fire Authority at Station 56 in Buena Park. "It said, 'When you get to Orange County, we'll be there to meet you and make sure you get safely through,'" Creutzburg said.

The next day, Wednesday, Sept. 5, four Orange County Fire Authority firefighters met Creutzburg; Nate Schoemer, a retired staff sergeant and dog trainer; and Stephanie Rowe near the pier in Huntington Beach.

"The firefighters immediately took the packs off us and started walking with us," Creutzburg said.

Over two days, 22 off-duty firefighters from OCFA accompanied the group through Orange County, leaving them near Camp Pendleton's Las Pulgas Gate on Thursday, Sept. 6.

"For what these guys have done and been through, it's the least we can do," said Martinez, who found out about the walk from his wife who saw it on social media.

Martinez already was familiar with Cammies & Canines. His father-in-law, a Vietnam veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, had been helped by the organization and was given a dog.

"I've seen the positive impact these guys have," Martinez said. "When they were in Long Beach, my wife saw they needed help and showed it to me. I started making calls with the help of Shane Frederick," an OCFA firefighter at Station 17 in Cypress.

Martinez didn't stop there, coordinating more help from firefighters at Camp Pendleton and in Oceanside.

Since Sept. 1, Creutzburg and his team have been hiking 22 miles a day – representing the average of 22 veterans who kill themselves daily. They are carrying the 50-pound packs to illustrate the burden of suicide among veterans and to symbolize the fact that veterans are 50 percent more likely to commit suicide than those with no military service, Creutzburg said.

They also hope their public presence along the coast, through four counties, will generate enough interest in their cause to help raise funds to finalize the purchase of 289 acres of ranch land in Dulzura, an unincorporated area of San Diego County.

Creutzburg leased the $1.39 million property in May with an option to buy it. His goal is to raise $350,000 by the end of September to help close escrow in October. To date, the group has raised about $70,000.

The property is the site of the Cammies & Canines Sanctuary, a place to help homeless veterans put their lives back together partly by interacting with homeless dogs that are also rescued by the group. The dogs are being prepared for adoption and trained as service animals by Schoemer.

"When I bring homeless veterans off the street, I give them many responsibilities, including taking care of the rescue dogs," Creutzburg said. "If there is a match, we pair the veteran with the dog. It's one of many modalities to help veterans transition through their internal struggles."

Veterans are also required to work the ranch and contribute to daily chores. Sobriety is a requirement. There currently are 10 veterans and 15 dogs at the ranch. By the end of next week, veterans at the sanctuary will have built enough bunks to accommodate 20 veterans, Creutzburg said.

The land is the site of the family-owned Marquez Ranch. A $50,000 donation from Tom Sudberry, a San Diego developer and Navy veteran, kick-started the effort to raise $350,000. Cammies & Canines hopes to find other donors as well as sponsors willing to pledge $1 a mile for the coastal walk.

"We want to activate veterans and patriots to help raise the money," Creutzburg said. "If we don't raise the money then the homeless vets residing on our ranch will be homeless again."

Cammies & Canines is providing daily updates on its Facebook page where sponsors can make donations. The trio plan to finish their hike at the ranch on Tuesday, Sept. 11.

Creutzburg founded the group in 2016 after becoming homeless following a divorce.

"While serving as a company commander for Headquarters Company 23rd Marines, I was homeless," he said. "After raising my hand and asking for help, I finally addressed my pain and hurt. Ultimately, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and manic depression. Not willing to be a victim of circumstance and diagnosis, I continued to work on my struggles. Ultimately, it was a non-religious worldwide men's group (the ManKind Project) that helped me face my demons head on and I began to heal."

Creutzburg said he founded Cammies & Canines as a way to pay it forward and to continue his mission of service.

"I've found there is so much healing power in helping others," he said. "I'm determined to help my warrior brothers transition off the streets. I find that using my own personal example of perseverance and grit works well with the residents."


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