Ron Zaleski has been barefoot since 1972 — a testament to the length of time he's carried a burden of guilt for how he handled the moral tug of war the Vietnam War unleashed within him.
It wasn't until a child asked him in 2005 why he didn't wear shoes that he managed to explain himself. Previously, he'd employ a tough-guy New York accent and reply to any inquiries with some variation of the "What's it to you?" response.
Now he's proactive about veterans awareness and is preparing a speech for the U.S. House Committee for Veterans' Affairs, lobbying for mandatory counseling for veterans returning from duty and their families. He also encourages adding grieving and resiliency counseling to basic training coursework.
"Let's not gloss it over: They are trained to kill another human being," Zaleski told NUVO during a roadside interview Nov. 3 on North Meridian Street. "We ask them to do the unspeakable and then we don't allow them to speak."
"There is not a person alive who comes back from [combat experience] as the same person."
He is in Indianapolis this weekend as a guest speaker set to follow the screening of "Soldier's Song," a feature of the Reel Hope Film Festival. The 30-minute film, according the festival's synopsis, centers on how "an injured soldier living in a 'by-the-book' VA Hospital wages a personal war against pain, paralysis and altered perceptions."
Indiana has sent the second-highest number of its residents per capita to serve in the current war effort, said Russ Eaglin, a U.S. Marine who served from '67-'70 and now serves as the Veterans Service Coordinator for the city.
In January, Mayor Greg Ballard directed Eaglin to organize a Mayor's Advisory Council Committee on veterans' affairs to organize vets, local military leadership and social services groups that serve vets to pool their resources and response efforts for chronic problems facing the community such as suicide, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, Gulf War Illness and post-traumatic stress disorder.
There are at least 300 homeless vets in the city, some with families, Eaglin said.
And that number is a low estimate said Cindy Thomas, executive vice president of HVAF, a United Way non-profit group focused on eliminating homelessness for veterans and their families.
Thomas said she believes 500-700 homeless vets in Marion County is more on target.
Challenges such as Gulf War Illness, post-traumatic stress disorder and increasing suicide rates (even among vets that don't see combat) are on the rise, Eaglin said.
With 62,000 veterans in Marion County, "we're trying to get ahead of [the increasing need for supportive services] in this community," Eaglin said
Soldiers are trained to be self reliant, not to admit weakness or ask for help with emotional issues, he said.
He's walked — barefoot, of course — across the U.S. and the Appalachian Trail collecting signatures to support his counseling initiative.He carries a sign bearing a haunting message in bold print: 18 veterans commit suicide each day.
He began his trail in Concord, Mass., at the site where the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired. Then he continued to the site of the Boston Tea Party, 9-11's Ground Zero, the Civil War Trail and the Trail of Tears.
"We haven't healed from any of those wars yet," he said.
The mission is in service to veterans, and, by extension, U.S. society at large, but it is also personal.
It's a way for him to forgive himself.
His guilt stems from a dilemma he faced in squaring the war-bound reality his low draft lottery number promised, paired with his conviction, as a life-long Catholic, that killing is wrong, and his awareness, heightened as the son of a WWII vet, that war remains with soldiers long after armistice.
He wondered if he were in battle, "Would I have the courage not to kill?"
The Long Island, NY, native enlisted with a buddy in the U.S. Marines in 1970 before just before the lottery sealed his fate. But still, he told his commanding officer, "you'll have to chain me to a helicopter to get me over there."
In short, he decided to show up at San Mateo and tell the commanding officers to lock him up because he refused to fight.
"Don't worry, you coward," he said he was told. "Your orders have changed."
It was then Zaleski said he discovered that most of him unit had been shot and two men died. Hence years of self doubt, wondering if he could have saved the people he was supposed to fight with or if he could have made a different decision that would somehow result in a different outcome.
"I felt guilty for my actions and lack of actions," he said. "Did I do the right thing?"
Often injured vets experience guilt that they survived an attack while others die, he said. For these soldiers the war is not about terrorism, patriotism or oil, "it's about staying alive," he said.
Zaleski encourages people to be aware of the veterans in their neighborhoods and communities by engaging them in activities like hiking or fishing and then "don't talk; you listen."
His father, a Polish American, helped clean the ovens in Auschwitz, sought mental refuge in alcohol, which Zaleski said, only enflamed his internal rage. "My father was hammer. To him, everything else was a nail," Zaleksi said.
Part of his mission is to raise awareness that while veterans may only comprise 3 percent of the U.S. population, they affect a much wider swath of people when their families and friends are considered. He encounters this extened network of people on his travels, people like the mother of a soldier killed in action who pulled off the side of the road and ran to hug Zaleski.
"She held me like I was that baby," he said.