By Katy Savage
Eli Smith is a homeless veteran by choice.
Smith, 39, sold all of his belongings three years ago to hike to all four corners of the country and raise awareness about post-traumatic stress disorder.
Smith started his trip on foot in November 2016 before switching to a bike in 2017 due to back and knee pain. Smith plans to complete more than 15,000 miles by the time his trip is done this October.
“If I can help save just one life, then all the hardships, pain, loneliness and everything else will be absolutely worth it,” Smith wrote on his website.
Smith, who served in the Army from 2000-2002, rides through rain, cold and sickness. He said the journey has been mentally and physically challenging. Smith has slept under bridges. He’s been yelled at and nearly kidnapped. Some people have thrown things at him. Others have given him free meals.
Sleep Woodstock owner Pat Fulz hosted Smith for free on Saturday, May 4.
“It wasn’t even a hesitation for me,” Fulz said. “I think PTSD is something that needs to be paid attention to. We don’t do enough for them.”
Fulz brought Smith out to dinner at Ramunto’s in Bridgewater and listened to his stories.
“He’s quite a character,” Fulz said.
About 22 veterans commit suicide every day, according to a 2013 study from the V.A.
Smith lost two Army comrades who were struggling with PTSD.
“I needed to do something about it,” Smith said.
Smith relies on donations to help with the cost of the trip, which averages $80 a day. Smith talks at events and gives to local veteran organizations he meets along his way.
Smith has about 16,000 followers on social media. He posts updates there and writes postcards to those who have offered financial support.
“We cannot allow our veterans to lose the battle,” he said. “We need to let them know that we are here for them and we support them.”
Smith left Woodstock around 11 a.m. Sunday to pedal to his next stop in Lebanon, New Hampshire for a free lunch.
Smith isn’t sure what he’ll do after his trip is over. Whatever he does, he wants to be helping veterans. For now, he looks forward to simple comforts.
“Ice cubes and air conditioners are some things that I treasure now.”