NEWBURYPORT — William Shuttleworth has seen the hardships endured by some of his fellow U.S. military veterans, and at 71 years old, he believes their cause is one worth a 3,000-mile walk.
On May 15, Shuttleworth, a Newburyport resident who served in the Air Force from 1970 to 1976, will take his first step in a cross-country trek he has dubbed Vets Don’t Forget Vets. On the seven-month, 3,000-mile walk to California, he aims to raise awareness of veterans’ needs.
The inspiration for the walk came to him last year while he was working at a park in California where many impoverished veterans camped out of desperation. After hearing their stories, Shuttleworth said he was horrified to learn the degree of suffering experienced by many of the country’s veterans, a high percentage of whom are homeless, struggling with drug addiction, and not making enough money for medical care.
Shuttleworth, a seasoned hiker and adventurer who closed the door on a 35-year career in education in 2017, knew he wanted to take action. And after considering the fates of his brother, who died of ALS, and his sister, who has Alzheimer’s, Shuttleworth knew now was the time for him to take action in a big — even extreme — way.
“I’m in good shape and I decided that before something happens to me, I’m going to take advantage of my youth and make a difference by advocating for change,” said Shuttleworth, who has walked about 20 miles per day since his retirement.
“One person you meet can make a difference,” he added. “The change has got to start somewhere.”
On his trek, Shuttleworth plans to leave Newburyport and head west through the heart of the country on his way to a finish line at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County, California.
While on the road, he hopes to hold discussions with as many veterans as possible, along with their families and elected officials — whether it’s in a coffee shop, diner, living room or at a public gathering.
Shuttleworth said he hopes to encourage people to elect veterans to public office, noting that concern about them has “eroded” as fewer and fewer veterans have been elected through the years.
He also plans to advocate for eliminating veteran homelessness by 2030, providing free medical care for veterans who were drafted and given an honorable discharge, guaranteeing veterans medical and mental health treatment, and increasing starting pay for enlistees to a “livable wage.”
No stranger to traveling light, Shuttleworth’s only luggage will be a 25-pound backpack filled with basic supplies and a tent he plans to sleep in every night.
And in the true, spontaneous spirit of adventure, he hasn’t made any arrangements with anyone ahead of time. Rather, he hopes to start conversations with veterans by having a sign strapped to his backpack, a veterans hat, and through regular updates on a website he is using on the trip.
“I’ve got my living room, kitchen and bedroom all on my back,” he said. “My plan is to never take a ride, never stay in a hotel, cook my own meals and try not to eat at restaurants. I’ve always tried to conduct my life above and beyond principle, and I won’t compromise any of that on this trip.”
Shuttleworth is also raising money via a GoFundMe page to pay for his living expenses on the road.
But despite having plenty of travel experience and being in top physical shape, Shuttleworth has met doubters. Some have warned him of the dangers of the road, while others said because of his age, his cartilage will not withstand such a long journey on foot.
But still, he remains unfazed.
“Everybody else is worrying for me. They think I’m going to get kidnapped, robbed or sick, but I don’t think about any of those things,” Shuttleworth said. “Do you get up every day fearful? I live with no fear at all.”
As he counts down the days to when he hits the road, Shuttleworth said he looks forward to embracing the risk, which he believes is worth the reward of helping fellow veterans in need.
“If I fail, at least I did the best I could to succeed,” he said. “Life is either an adventure or it’s not.”
To keep up with Shuttleworth’s journey west, visit his website at https://vetsdontforgetvets.com/.
To donate to his GoFundMe page, visit https://www.gofundme.com/vets-don039t-forget-vets/donate.
Jack Shea may be reached at 978-961-3154 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @iamjackshea.