Earlier this year, a Buena Vista Marine Corps veteran hiked more than 600 miles from the San Francisco Bay area to the USS Midway in San Diego, Calif. to raise awareness about veteran suicide.
Shannon Harness was joined by John Preston in the “22 and You” hike down California’s Pacific Coast Highway from Palo Alto, where Preston works as a firefighter, to San Diego, where Preston’s father began a legacy of Marine Corps service that included Preston and his two brothers.
The 28-day hike began Jan. 13 this year, the four-year anniversary of Preston’s brother’s suicide.
“John and I served almost all four years in the Marine Corps together,” Harness said. “We both went to different infantry companies, but we were both wiremen that were effectively radio operators once we got to those companies for two years.”
Harness, originally from Kansas City, Mo., has lived in Chaffee County since 2014, where he works for Singletrack Trails, a trail construction company.
“We went to the same communications school together. I had a guitar, he knew how to play, I didn’t – my dad was teaching me over the phone – so we just became friends that way and spent a lot of time doing just that,” Harness said.
“He’s a musician and he’s a great songwriter and he’s come up with a lot of his own stuff, and we’d just sit around the barracks drinking and playing guitar.”
In 2016, Preston lost his older brother to suicide and his father to cancer. He had been advocating on behalf of veterans through live performances as a songwriter but looked to do something bigger, Harness said.
“John came up with this idea, after 3½ years, he thought, ‘I need to do something bigger. What I’m doing isn’t enough. Doing these benefit shows isn’t enough,’” Harness said.
“So he called me last July and said, ‘’Hey, I’m doing this 600-mile hike in California. I can’t do this without you, I need you there, you’re the only person whoever helped me keep (me) together.”
The number 22 has become a grim symbol of the hardship that many veterans face after military service, stemming from a report by the Department of Veterans Affairs that, on average, 22 veterans take their lives per day.
Preston’s ambitious plan was to hike 22 miles a day down the California coast from the place he now lives to the place where his family’s legacy of military service began, all on the unyielding asphalt of California State Route 1, and all while carrying a pack weighing not 22 pounds, but 22 kilograms. That’s about 48.5 pounds.
With the exception of 3½ days he took off at the request of a doctor due to injuries to his feet, Harness hiked the entire stretch with Preston.
Despite being surrounded by a crew of Preston’s fellow first responders, several of whom were trained as paramedics and EMTs, Harness found himself acting as the group’s podiatrist.
“I was skeptical that we would make it through carrying that much weight for that many days for that many miles a day. With no breaks,” Harness said. “It’s too much stress on the body, right? On your joints, on the muscular structure of your body, because you’re on pavement. There’s no give.”
Harness admits that, at the beginning of the trek, the Marines were not taking the best care of themselves. On Day 3, Harness removed the flat weights and barbell that helped him reach a pack weight of 22 kilos and restuffed with supplements, water, personal care items and a first aid kit at about 35 pounds.
Thus, Harness took on the gruesome job of caring for his friend’s feet, which by the third day had become so swollen, infected and blistered that simply stepping into his wildland firefighting boots caused the skin of his pinky toes to shear off.
Harness would wrap Preston’s feet every morning, and after about 20 minutes of walking, his feet were numb enough that he could hike at the pace they needed to hit the 22 miles a day benchmark. At times, Harness said, the group was averaging 1 mile an hour.
Preston had been broadcasting the hike on social media under the name “22 and You.” Nine days into the hike, he broke down and posted a video asking for help.
At first, the other members of the crew, including a film crew producing a forthcoming documentary about the hike, took turns carrying Preston’s 22-kilogram pack.
“He would take it for a little bit, they would take it for a little bit, switch it off between the crew members. And then the fire service showed up. And they showed up in force,” Harness said.
“Once John threw that out there, and the fire service saw it on social media, they showed up and were like ‘give me your pack, I’m going to carry the weight for a while. This is important to us that you finish. This is important to us that you are taken care of.’’’
As the group moved down the coast, they’d be met with local fire crews who would take them to the edge of their district, where the neighboring district would pick them up.
“There’s no world in which he would have finished this without the support of the crew, the fire service, veterans that showed up and the police service that showed up,” Harness said. “It was very similar to active duty military culture where you have each other’s back, no matter what. And that’s the whole purpose of why we were out there, to show that there is a community that is there to support you. If you need to ask for help, ask for help. We all need help sometimes.
“We all know what pain feels like. We’ve all been through it at some level,” he said.
There’s still a stigma in the United States about seeking help for your mental health issues.
For service members returning home, as well as for first responders, an instinct to “put on a front” to protect others from the daily stress of that job means “they just let it sit a lot of times,” Harness said.
“If you can’t make yourself vulnerable to talk to each other and share with anyone else what you’re struggling with, it just builds up inside and builds up inside, and you can try to compartmentalize, but it seeps out in other ways,” he said.
With the help of others, the group was running ahead of schedule by the time they made it to San Diego, Harness said.
So much so they had to slow themselves down so that they didn’t arrive at the Midway, the decommissioned aircraft carrier now used as a museum of naval history, before the reception that was supposed to greet them.
Harness set the scene: “I’ve got five guys that I served with in the Marine Corps, some of which I hadn’t seen for 15 years, hiking all day with us, we’re hiking past (Marine Corps Recruit Depot) San Diego (where Harness went through boot camp) and the hair is standing up on your arms and neck.
“We’re about a mile away from the Midway and we’ve got San Diego Fire, San Diego City Fire, it’s just lined up behind us. There’s like 10 engines, San Diego PD out there blocking the road for us as we’re hiking down, lights flashing. And there’s probably 25 or 30 people hiking with us all day long.
“Then we come up to this group of 100 people. A hundred supporters who just wanted to be there. Some of them had hiked with us at earlier points, some of them had helped us in one way or another, and the rest were just a lot of people who thought ‘Yeah, this is important, I want to be there for it. For you.’ And we had 150 people hiking with us into the Midway.”
Preston and Harness were supposed to be the last ones to walk onto the Midway for the celebration. As they were waiting in the parking lot of the museum, Harness said, “We gave each other a hug, both kind of crying, then we walk up the stairs onto the deck of the Midway.”
On that final day hiking into San Diego, the group stopped when they realized that, after 28 days of walking together, they would soon be parting ways again, going back to their homes across California and the United States.
“We knew that we weren’t going to have each other face-to-face, so we sat down and said, ‘Hey, this isn’t over, one,’” Harness said. “Two, you’re all going to go back to your communities and figure out how to make what we have here now work in your community.”
22 and You is currently raising funds to edit the footage collected over the course of the hike into a documentary film. Donations can be made to the organization at 22andYou.net.