While some college students are spending their spring break relaxing, a Troy State fraternity is using their time off from classes to continue the tradition of trekking 128.3 miles to raise funds and awareness for wounded warriors.
Walk Hard, the annual philanthropy fundraiser of the Troy University chapter of ATO, raises funds for wounded veterans through area mission Jeep Sullivan’s Wounded Warrior Outdoor Adventures based in Bonifay. The brothers hike 128.3 miles from the Quad to Pier Park over six days of their Spring Break week. Along the way, the ATO’s traverse the cities of Troy, Enterprise and Hartford in Alabama and Bonifay, Vernon, Ebro and Panama City Beach in Florida.
The group crossed over the Florida state line from Alabama on Sunday. As one would imagine, walking 128 miles is no easy task. The group breaks the walk down to 20-25 mile increments over a six-day period.
Barry McKnight, the “Voice of the Trojans”, spoke to the brothers on Friday before they left on their mission.
“First let me say that the entire Troy University community is proud of you for giving up your spring break to serve others,” said McKnight. “You are modeling a positive dimension of Greek life that often goes unnoticed. You are a credit to this University, a credit to the Greek organizations on this campus, to your families and to this outreach. Walk Hard is not just about the brothers of ATO — it’s about those you serve.”
McKnight also read an essay written by Paul Kozak, a member of the “Third Herd Platoon” of U.S. Marines led by Dr. Hawkins in Vietnam. McKnight said the essay cast into context the reason the fraternity supports American veterans through Sullivan’s mission.
“When you leave this morning, remember you are walking for wounded warriors like Paul Cossack and others who have demonstrated that freedom is not free. It is paid for by the blood of patriots,” he said.
The brothers stopped at the Bonifay National Guard Armory for dinner and some much-needed rest before continuing through Holmes County and into Washington County, where they stayed Monday night at Sonrise Church Camp and Tuesday night at Pinelog State Park.
Joining the brothers this year was Eric Shaffer, who retired last week from the U.S. Marine Corps. Shaffer is one of several veterans Sullivan lined up to speak and fellowship with the hikers throughout the walk.
He said he hoped to show his support for them and provide some motivation on their trek, saying the mission is one that saves lives and transforms families.
“What they do is tremendous,” said Shaffer. “I’ve met some of the guys that (Sullivan) has taken on some of these hunts. They’ve been able to change peoples’ lives, and that changes families.”
Shaffer got to know Sullivan because he has been a beneficiary of the program.
“What Jeep is able to do is to save lives. When that happens, then families are saved. That’s what is so important about supporting (ATO) in Walk Hard. They’re helping to save veterans and their families,” he said.
That’s a point not lost on the ATO brothers, even those who are new to the fraternity membership and walking for the first time, such as fraternity brother Ely Grice.
“Being able to walk for people who can’t, or just being out to support them, is the least we can do,” said Grice.
Now in its 12th year, the first event was small, made up of two brothers walking to support juvenile diabetes. From there, the walk grew a little each year as more brothers volunteered to spend spring break making the long walk to support others causes such as Special Olympics and the Wounded Warrior Project.
In 2014, ATO turned its attention to localizing money raised by allocating it to Jeep Sullivan’s Wounded Warrior Outdoor Adventures. The Bonifay-based non-profit organization offers outdoor excursions to wounded warriors, veterans, and first responders. The organization’s clients take refuge in hunting, fishing, airboat tours and wildlife education with creative accommodations made for all types of disabilities.
Sullivan was inspired to start the organization and ministry by his father-in-law, Wayne Mitchell of Chipley, who lost a leg in Vietnam and was awarded three Purple Hearts.
Sullivan started by reaching out to warriors wounded in Guadalcanal, WWII, Vietnam, Korea and then to younger veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. He gained more traction with the organization after he met and started receiving help from Mark McDuffie, owner of Wounded Warrior Fishing.
Since then, the combined group has been on hunting and inland fishing excursions all over the country. Sullivan attributes much of his organization’s progress over the past year to publicity and funding brought in by the ATO Hard Walk.
The Hard Walk will end March 16 at Pier Park Boardwalk in Panama City Beach.
“It’s truly encouraging incredible that there are young people willing to give up their spring break to give their mind, body, and soul to help veterans,” said Sullivan.
Since 2014, the event has raised nearly $400,000 to benefit local wounded warriors. In 2021, the event raised $93,000 with a goal to surpass $100,000 in 2022. Donations as of Monday morning are nearly $85,000. To donate, visit ato.crowdchange.co.