June 17, 2021

“You guys give me hope that we can all change.”

Those are the words of Ron Zaleski, Marine Veteran and founder of The Walk Home, who had the privilege to speak to prisoners at the All Souls Chapel within The Union Correctional Institution of Raiford, FL. Ron recalled how difficult it was returning home from the Marines and learning that his friends had been killed in Vietnam. “I held on to a lot of guilt and shame,” he told the inmates, many of whom are Veterans themselves. “For 33 thirty years I was angry at the world. All I felt was anger.”

In 1972, Ron stopped wearing shoes as a memorial to the friends he lost. It was in 2006 that he founded The Long Walk Home and walked barefoot along the entire Appalachian Trail to raise awareness for Veterans. “A lot of guys come back looking for a home, but they never find it,” said Ron. “I met a lot of Vets on my walks who were just searching for a home.”

Ron upped the stakes significantly in 2010, brandishing a sign around his neck that read “18 Vets a Day Commit Suicide!” and walking barefoot from Concord, MA to Santa Monica Pier, CA. That’s roughly 3,400 miles without shoes. He shared with the prisoners a story of a woman he met along his journey. “She saw my sign and she hugged me, crying, and said ‘it’s my fault, he told me, I didn’t believe him, it’s my fault, I should have known.’” She was a mother whose son had recently left the military and committed suicide, Ron learned. These sorts of encounters happened daily as Ron traveled from coast to coast.

Soon after completing his walk, Ron opened up a homeless shelter for Veterans in the Florida Keys. There, he learned a valuable lesson. “I judged everyone I brought in,” he admitted. “I’d tell them ‘you’re a drug addict, go get clean’ or ‘you’re a bum, go get a job’. I didn’t give them a chance to change. I put them in defense mode. People don’t change when they’re in defense mode.”

The audience of UCI inmates sat in attentive silence as Ron began making his final remarks. “We all make mistakes,” he said. “I know I’ve made a lot of them. Those mistakes don’t define me or you. What defines us is how we show up at the start of each new day.” At the conclusion of his speech, Ron was greeted by more than a dozen inmates eager for hugs and handshakes. For those in attendance, Ron’s words seemed to hold a lot of sentiment.

This was just a few weeks after one UCI inmate, Ed Shook, embarked on a 125 mile walk to honor Vets and spread awareness for those with PTSD. “If Ron can walk 3,400 miles, then I can walk 125,” said Shook. A Vietnam Veteran, he braced the hot summer weather and completed the walk in two weeks, finishing on Memorial Day. Shook’s walk raised $4,100 dollars in outside donations for an organization that treats PTSD in Veterans.

Gary Newman, Vice President of the VVA’s Florida State Council, currently works with over a hundred incarcerated Veterans at UCI. A Navy Veteran himself, Newman sees the value in giving Veteran inmates a similar regiment in prison to the one they have in the military. “Having that structure can feel familiar and be helpful to the Veteran prisoners,” says Newman.

Many of the Veteran inmates at UCI face a lifetime sentence, but the love and respect they have for fellow Vets remains stronger than ever. Upon entering their prison dorm, you are greeted by gorgeous painted murals on every wall, all depicting facets of military service. One painting illustrates a group of American soldiers, standing proudly alongside each other. Another displays a U.S. Naval Battleship, in all its size and strength. A sense of brotherhood exists there, despite the bars on the windows.

“The only prison that can hold back our spirit is the one in our minds.” – Ron Zaleski

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