Jiuseppe “Joe” Copeland is a Navy Veteran on a mission. Almost four months ago, he and his dog, Molly began, a cross-country hike with one goal in mind – ending veteran suicides.
As a former member of the Navy Construction Battalion, or SeaBees, Copeland says the choice to support this cause was obvious.
“I’d always wanted to do a walk like this, and my wife agreed that I should do it, with one request,” he said. “She suggested I walk for a cause, and this was the first thing that came to mind.”
Copeland, who calls Austin, Texas home, named his project “Joe’s Walk to End 22,” which references a 2012 study that discovered 22 veterans and one active-duty servicemember ends his or her life every day.
The name of his journey seems vague, and Copeland says this was done by design.
“I kept it kind of cryptic on purpose,” he said. “At least ten or twelve times a day, I have someone ask me, ‘What is 22?’ or ‘What does that mean?’ and it gives me a chance to really talk about it and help people understand why I’m doing this.”
To raise even more awareness, Copeland wears a neon yellow shirt with “Veterans’ Lives Matter” written on the front and the number 22 on the back. His cart has his social media information as well.
Social media is a tool Copeland uses daily, posting daily live videos to keep people updated on his journey. Because the route is ever-changing, he encourages supporters to tune in to see where he ends up every day.
Chris Guizerix, a former sailor and current student at the University of Mississippi, says Copeland’s cause is dear to his heart.
“Almost every veteran knows someone who’s struggled after returning to the civilian world,” Guizerix said. “Bringing awareness to this cause is a good reminder that those who are struggling have a support system and are not alone.”
He began in Virginia Beach, then traveled through North Carolina and Tennessee before making his way south to the Oxford area. He’s now one-third of the way through a trek he’d planned to last a year, but he says he hasn’t been alone. His wife and two sons met him in Tennessee and walked beside him, and his mother joined him in Nashville. The pair walked all the way to his sister’s home in Pontotoc, Mississippi, together, traveling between 10 and 20 miles a day.
“She’s 72 years old, and she kept up with me the whole time,” Copeland said. “Some days, she was my motivation to keep going.”
While raising awareness for veteran suicide is the most important goal, there is an added benefit of this walk. Copeland admits he is not an experienced hiker, but says this journey has inspired him to cultivate healthy habits that will carry over after the walk ends.
“I’m not an athlete by any means. I’m a couch jockey,” he said. “When I started this, I was 300 pounds. I weighed myself today, and I’m down to 275. So, that in itself is a good thing.”
Adam Morris, a former Marine entering his junior year at the Ole Miss, says he thinks hiking is an innovative way to raise awareness for a cause.
“As a veteran and avid hiker, I find it inspiring that this guy has taken time out of his day-to-day life to see the country while bringing attention to such a worthy cause,” said Morris.
As much as he enjoys seeing the country, Copeland says another walk won’t be happening any time soon.
“I probably won’t do another walk like this, because I already miss my family so much. But I’ll definitely keep advocating and raising awareness for 22.”
From Pontotoc, his next stop will be Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, then up to Colorado before ending in California. After the walk, he plans to drive the entire route in reverse with his family, so he can show them all he’s seen.