Former US Army combat medic Alexander Seling has completed a cross country hike aimed at raising awareness about the high number of veteran suicides recorded each year. Throughout the 13-month trek, he raised thousands of dollars for charity.
Seling began his over-4,000 mile trek in Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware, hiking along the American Discovery Trail. He completed his journey in Dana Point, California on January 31, 2022, where he was greeted by dozens of supporters before taking a step into the Pacific Ocean.
Along the way, he raised more than $6,500 for Mission 22 and Warrior Expeditions. Mission 22 works to prevent veteran suicides by offering treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries, while Warrior Expeditions offers outdoor therapy for veterans transitioning back into civilian life.
Speaking with The Orange County Register, Seling said, “It feels unbelievable. It was absolutely the best moment of my life. It’s a little overwhelming and I’m not sure it’s really hit me yet, but I’m really happy and proud of the journey.”
As of 2018, 6,435 veterans died by suicide, compared to 6,056 in 2005, an increase of 48 deaths per year. According to the Department of Veterans Affair‘s 2021 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, while the numbers continue to be high, there were 399 fewer suicides in 2019, “reflecting the lowest raw count of veteran suicides since 2007.”
The report also noted that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has not led to an increase in veteran suicide-related behaviors, given the available data. As well, “the level of differential mortality by mental health status has not increased since the pandemic began.”
While veteran suicides dipped in 2019, the mental health struggles former service members face continue to lead many to consider suicide, including Seling. During the War in Iraq, he served as a combat medic with the 25th Infantry Division, 2-27 Wolfhounds. He retired in 2010 and found the transition back into civilian life difficult.
In particular, he found he wasn’t finding comfort or enjoyment in the hobbies he partook in before his deployment.
“I’ve known a few people who’ve taken their lives, veterans who have taken their lives after getting out of the Army,” he told Yahoo’s In The Know. “But I think that the main reason that I feel really compelled [by] this cause is because of everything I’ve gone through personally. I’ve had so many suicidal thoughts and I just know the pain that I’ve gone through – and I know other veterans [experience] the same and worse.
“When I regain my sense of self, and I come back to me, I realize how horrible that is. Like, I don’t want to kill myself, I don’t want to hurt myself. I just want to bring that to other veterans too … just some hope that their life can be different and better than they ever expected.”
Alexander Seling finished his walk across America tonight in Dana Point. Alexander, a @USArmy Veteran walked from Delaware to Dana Point, from sea to shining sea. @OCSDDanaPoint provided a motorcade for Alex’s last leg of a long journey to raise awareness for Veteran suicide. pic.twitter.com/LLJgmJWBN9
— PJ Smith (@PJSmith42378338) February 1, 2022
Seling took up hiking following his return to the US, and in 2017 walked across the Pacific Crest Trail. This spurred him to embark on a similar hike of the American Discovery Trail in 2021. Beginning on December 21, 2020, he traversed the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains, before walking through Moab National Park in Utah and heading southwest toward Dana Point.
As for what he hopes other veterans gain from his experience:
“I want to give people hope that there is another way. There’s another way to live your life. There are unorthodox ways that you can heal yourself. And being in nature and going through the many challenges that come with an adventure is an extremely therapeutic way to heal yourself.”