‘Ready to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, I heard someone yell, ‘Are you Jake? The veteran we’ve been looking for?’: Homeless veteran battling PTSD shares emotional 10,000-mile journey across America

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“I joined the United States Army when I was 17 and served four years as an infantryman. After my military contract was up, I traveled back to my home state of Tennessee and opened my own business. As the months went on, I began to have symptoms of PTSD, such as anxiety and depression. After about a year of struggling with my mental health, I felt that I could no longer continue running the business as I had been, but I tried to keep the business afloat by working from home. However, that turned out to be much more difficult than I thought, so I ended up losing my house and began living out of my car.

I spent the fall of 2012 and into the spring of 2013 sleeping in my car and working odd jobs. While I would have needed full-time employment to afford a house, my current mental state just would not allow me to do so. However, I was still making enough to keep myself fed, gas in my vehicle, and the occasional motel room to get myself cleaned up. It was during this time that I was professionally diagnosed with PTSD, which was no surprise to me. However, what did catch me by surprise was the fact that I was denied benefits by the Veterans Affairs. While that added a bit more stress for me, I didn’t take it too personally and continued trying to shake it off.

I can’t remember the exact date, but one spring evening of 2013, I decided to visit my parents in the rural town of Greenfield. They had no idea what I was going through, and I intended to keep it that way. While I simply played it off that I was there to take a break from work, the real reason I was there was so that I could get a shower and do some laundry. I ended up staying the night with them, which turned out to be one of the worst decisions I could have made.

It was probably around midnight, when I made my way to my old bedroom, which my mother had converted into somewhat of a gym. In the corner, I noticed my parents had kept one of my acoustic guitars, so I picked it up and took a seat in the middle of the room to give it a play. As I gently plucked at the soft nylon strings, trying not to bother my parents on the other end of the house, I heard a deep rumbling sound and felt the walls begin to shake. Just as I lowered my hand to silence the resonating strings to get a better listen at what was going on, something came crashing through the house and sent me flying through the wall behind me. I immediately began shuffling through the debris and used my phone as a flashlight to see what had happened. I then realized a tree had come crashing through the house and, upon looking at my phone, I noticed we were in the middle of a tornado warning.

After gathering myself and checking on my parents, I made my way outside to scope out the damage. That’s when I noticed the tree that had landed on their house had also landed on my car. Since I was trying to save money at the time, I only had liability insurance, so I was at a total loss. My parents finally walked outside and began shouting at me to follow them to my aunt’s house next door, but I just continued standing there in the rain, staring at the mangled heap of metal that used to be my car. Because I was pretty much in the middle of nowhere, I had no idea how I was going to find any work without it.

Homeless man living in the woods of Tennesse
Courtesy of Jake Sansing

I then spent the next couple of months helping my parents clean up all of the wreckage; this was no easy process for me because my depression was worse then that it had ever been. If I wasn’t helping to clean up around the house, I was just lying on my old bedroom floor, thinking about what I could do to get out of that situation. I finally decided to sell my car to a junkyard for $300. I then used that money to purchase a backpack, sleeping bag, a tent, and a few other items that I would need for living outside. Because my parents lived in such a rural area, and the fact that I didn’t want to mooch off of them forever, my only option was to walk between towns to continue my search for work.

After walking between towns and finding odd jobs for a couple of months, I started to notice my depression and anxiety didn’t seem to be so bad. One night, as I was walking along a set of train tracks through the forest and making my way for another town, I had the idea to walk across America. I figured taking nine months to myself may be what I needed to help get my mind right, and maybe I could return after that and have a bit more luck at finding full-time employment. With my mind made up, I stepped off of the tracks and wandered deep into the forest. I set up camp that night next to a river, enjoying the sounds of nature, the warm glow of my fire, and the stars shining brightly in the sky. At that moment, all of my troubles seemed to disappear, and I knew there was no going back with the decision I’d made. I then spent about a month living in the woods of Tennessee, just so I could practice my survival skills and get used to being alone.

On August 20th, 2013, I made my way to Memphis, Tennessee and took a train to Washington, D.C. That was the closest a train could get me to the town of California, Maryland, which was where I had plans to meet up with a friend to cross the country together. I spent a week with him at his house, where I camped in the backyard as he continued getting everything ready to leave. On September 1st, we had a friend of his give us a boat ride across the Chesapeake Bay, where we planned on starting our journey in Delaware. However, my new friend decided to go back home on the first day, and I was on my own from that point on.

Courtesy of Jake Sansing

As the weeks went by, I slowly began to question what I was doing. My depression and anxiety seemed to be improving, but I seemed to be losing my motivation. One of my cousins then reached out to me and recommended that I download an app on my phone, where my miles could be tracked, and a company would be willing to donate a few cents per mile. I thought that seemed like a good idea and would help to give my journey a bit more meaning. So, I got the app and began raising money for a charity called Shot At Life, which, at the time, their goal was to help children in developing countries get vaccines. By helping with this charity, my sense of purpose and self-worth reached an all-time high, and I was addicted to it.

homeless man smiling next to a sign
Courtesy of Jake Sansing

Alone and unsupported, I spent the next three years traveling from Tennessee to Delaware, to California, to Florida, to Alaska, back to Florida, and back to California again. During that time, I helped to raise money for Shot At Life, Wounded Warriors Project, and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. I think walking for St. Jude had the most impact on me, though. While I was walking through the southern states, a vehicle pulled over and a young boy stepped out. He was a cancer survivor and thought it was the coolest thing to get to meet me. I often questioned if people even cared about what I was doing, but the little things like that really helped to keep me motivated.

homeless man and cancer survivor child smiling
Courtesy of Jake Sansing

It was a common misconception among people that because I was helping with these causes, I was probably receiving some kind of support. However, that was not the case. The only support I got during my journey came from a few people who sent me care packages, as well as passing strangers. I was passing through Texas one year when this one family invited me into their home. They let me have dinner with them, allowed me to take a shower and do some laundry, and I was even given a bed to sleep in. Random acts of kindness like that happened quite often and it really helped to restore my faith in humanity.

food from the trash
Courtesy of Jake Sansing
homeless man with a random family from Texas
Courtesy of Jake Sansing

For food, I did a lot of hunting, trapping, fishing, foraging, and even dumpster diving while passing through towns. Although I didn’t need much money, I would sometimes find myself needing new gear or wanting a motel room. In that case, I would find odd jobs just as I had in Tennessee. I also made and sold bows and atlatls, sold things that I found while dumpster diving, and I collected whatever change I would find sitting on the side of the road. A lot of people often wondered what I did to keep myself occupied while I was walking. I was always busy paying attention to my surroundings, keeping an eye out for changes in the weather and studying plants in the area. I even taught myself how to make bread out of cattails!

I never stopped for any length of time and would usually walk anywhere from twenty to fifty miles per day. Although, there were a few occasions that I walked non-stop for days at a time and would put down nearly ninety miles in just twenty-four hours. Of course, as time would tell, my body could only endure that kind of punishment for so long. While I knew that someday it would all have to come to an end, I decided I would continue doing it for as long as I could. To be honest, there were a lot of days that I thought something would kill me while I was out there, and I was completely fine with that. At one point, I had to stop for about a week, though, because I had developed a stress fracture in my hip. I was in California when that happened. Luckily, I found a nice river to hang out at while I waited for my hip to fix itself.

Although most of my close calls came from thunderstorms or passing motorists getting too close for comfort, I did experience a few hair-raising moments. For example, I had just made it to Denali National Park in Alaska when I decided to venture out into the wilderness. After making my way up to one of the mountains’ ridgelines, I decided to stay at that altitude for as long as I could, since the vegetation wasn’t so dense there. However, on my third day out, I noticed I was out of water and needed to make my way down to the river below. After hiking for several hours, I reached the river and slid down the muddy bank. I then pulled out one of my canteens to prepare to fill it with water. When I removed the canteen, the elastic strap that helped to hold it in place slapped loudly against the side of my backpack. I immediately heard the sound of water violently splashing on the other side of the bend, so I quickly grabbed my pack and made my way back up the bank.

Once I reached the top, I turned to see a large, angry grizzly bear making its way up the hill behind me. Without much thought, I removed the can of bear spray from my belt. By the time I had the can raised and ready to fire, the bear was only a few feet away and let out a thunderous roar. I knew that would probably be my only chance at making it out of there alive, so I took the opportunity and shot a burst of spray directly into the bear’s face. The bear then backed off a bit and began huffing and rubbing its face all over the ground. Within a few seconds, the bear had charged me again, so I sprayed it in the face again. That went on a few more times and just as the last bit of bear spray fizzled out of the can, the bear decided it’d had enough and slowly walked away. While the immediate danger appeared to be over with, I still had a three-day hike back to the nearest road with nothing but a pocket-knife and machete to defend myself.

bear that almost killed homeless man
Courtesy of Jake Sansing
golden gate bridge
Courtesy of Jake Sansing

After making it three years on my own and traveling 10,000 miles, the end of my journey was about to happen just as suddenly as it started. I was making my way across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California, when my knees finally gave out and popped out of their sockets. I felt defeated and was terrified at the idea of trying to return to a normal life, which I couldn’t even do when I had working knees. I immediately fell back into a deep depression and slowly made my way off of the bridge to set up camp in a patch of woods nearby. As I was lying there that night, I began to think of ways to end my life. I’m not entirely sure why something so drastic popped into my head, but it did. As I continued lying there and thinking more into it, I had the idea to jump off of the Golden Gate Bridge, and I was set on it.

The next day, I painfully made my way onto the Golden Gate Bridge, prepared to end my life. The scary thing is, I wasn’t afraid to die, but I felt a huge sense of relief. As I stood there getting ready to jump, time no longer seemed to exist. My whole life began to play in my mind, as if I were watching a movie. It seemed like all I could see were the bad times, even though the past few years had been full of such wonderful memories. I’d met so many kind, caring strangers, and I’d held my head high knowing that I had been walking for such noble causes. I’m not sure how long I was standing there, thinking about everything I wouldn’t miss about my life, but I eventually heard someone yell my name, and I snapped out of it. When I turned around, I realized no one else was on the bridge except for me and a few police officers. There were no other pedestrians and they had completely stopped all traffic.

One of the police officers finally called me over to him, which, at that point, I felt ashamed of myself and went with him willingly. After hopping into the officer’s back seat, he turned to me and asked, ‘Are you a Jake? The veteran we’ve been looking for?’ I nodded in shame, as I knew then that they had probably wanted to meet me under better circumstances. I no longer felt like a hero, but the biggest loser on the planet.

homeless man sitting at the VA hospital
Courtesy of Jake Sansing

After being rescued from a suicide attempt, I was taken to the VA hospital in San Francisco and was admitted for about a month. While I was there, I was finally able to find peace that I had been struggling so hard to find. Joining all of the other veterans in group therapy made me realize that I wasn’t alone. I was able to share with them stories I swore I would take to my grave without feeling judged, and, above all, my story of walking across America seemed to give them inspiration. I no longer felt like it was all for nothing, but my journey actually had a greater meaning than I realized. For all of those years, I’d received hateful comments from people telling me to ‘grow up’ and ‘get a job.’ Finally, I was surrounded by people who understood there was more to life. Although, that was something we all had to figure out together.

After being released from the hospital, I remembered a lady had sent me a text a few months back, asking if I’d be interested in working on a farm in Wyoming. I thought it was a longshot, but I responded to her and asked if the position was still available. Surprisingly, she replied back within a few minutes and asked, ‘How soon can you be here?’ Since I was still homeless and had no sense of direction, I hopped on the next bus out of there and made my way to Wyoming. I then lived and worked on a farm near Pinedale as a ranch hand for a year before I was diagnosed with liver cancer. The only reason I found out was because a woman I had relations with told me she’d tested positive for hepatitis. Since I was having pains in my abdomen, I decided to get checked out. While I didn’t have hepatitis, they did determine I had a mass and that I would need to start treatment as soon as possible. After everything I’d been through, I failed to accept defeat and decided to travel back to Tennessee to start my treatment.

While it wasn’t necessary to receive my treatment in Tennessee, I just felt more comfortable going through with it closer to home. However, I was homeless again after returning to Tennessee, since the money I’d saved would have to go towards my medical bills. Being homeless was the least of my worries, though. Other than the fact that I was sick, and it was an unbearably hot summer, I was comfortable with living in my tent again. Because I still didn’t have a vehicle, I decided to set my tent up in the woods behind the hospital so I wouldn’t miss any of my appointments. To help keep myself occupied during that time, I purchased a laptop and began writing a book about my travels. While most writers probably don’t have to worry about these things, working on a book while living outside is a whole different ball game. Because I needed electricity, I was pretty much held prisoner to the outlet on the side of the hospital, and I was always having to struggle with the sun’s reflection on the screen. However, writing sure had a way of helping me to escape the reality I was facing, so I barely even remember how bad it was.

homeless man holding up a sign
Courtesy of Jake Sansing

After a grueling three months, I finally received the news I’d been hoping for – my cancer was in remission! That very same day, I put the finishing touches on my book and immediately self-published it under the title, ‘Walking America: A 10,000 Mile Journey of Self-Healing.’ Once my book was ready for printing, I ordered myself a copy and handed it over to a local library. About a week later, I got a call from an unknown number. ‘Hi, Jake. This is the library in Martin, Tennessee. I really enjoyed your book. Would you be interested in setting up a book signing?’ Of course, I replied with an enthusiastic, ‘Yes!’ I then took a risk and spent the rest of the money I had and ordered twenty more copies for the book signing.

Since it was my first book signing, I was really nervous about it. I had no practice with public speaking, and I had no idea how everyone was going to react. I honestly had doubts about whether people would even show up or not, but I knew I had to give it a shot. To my surprise, nearly twenty people showed up and they all seemed quite interested in hearing about my journey. The fact that everyone was intrigued helped to alleviate my anxiety, and I was able to relax for the most part. At the end of my speech and taking the time to answer any questions, everyone began to express how they found my story to be inspiring. It was at that moment that I actually felt like it was all worth something. Although I was able to sell every copy of my book that night, having such a positive response from everyone gave me something money couldn’t buy. They all had their own set of struggles and my determination appeared to give them strength to deal with whatever life throws at them.”

homeless man capturing the view
Courtesy of Jake Sansing
homeless man on a cliff
Courtesy of Jake Sansing

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jake Sansing of Los Angeles, California. You can follow his journey on his website. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribeto our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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