“As we walked toward the ocean, I knew my wife, daughter, and sister were waiting at the finish line,” Anthony Anderson remembers. “The walk was over, and now it was about putting my money where my mouth was. I kept thinking, ‘I really wish we weren’t done.’ ”
Anderson’s journey had started 155 days before, on a sunny morning in September 2013. He and Tom Voss, both Iraq War veterans, set out on foot from the War Memorial Center in their hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Their destination? Santa Monica, California—2,700 miles away.
Sporting identical ginger beards and each toting a 90-pound pack, they had two goals to achieve by the time they reached the West Coast. The first was to clear their heads of the anger and emotional detachment they had carried since returning home from Iraq. Then, they hoped to raise awareness about “moral injury,” a condition in which vets have trouble reconciling their actions in wartime with their own principles. Their epic trek, both physical and psychological, is chronicled in the new documentary “Almost Sunrise,” premiering at Mountainfilm in Telluride, Coloraldo over Memorial Day weekend.
Voss came up with the plan for the trek, and despite the distance, Anderson quickly signed on. “We both realized this was something that was going to take longer than a week to deal with,” Voss says (they ruled out driving motorcycles and other short-term activities). “By walking, we knew that we would have time and the solitude to be able to work out issues stemming from what we went through during our deployment.”
Voss admits that he drank heavily after returning home from Iraq, while Anderson says constant anger prevented him from being a good husband and father.
Remembers Anderson, “It was incredibly organic. We just said, ‘OK, we’re gonna walk to California.’ When you’re walking 20 miles a day, you’re really physically exhausting yourself, and when your body and mind say, ‘no, I don’t want to think about anger or why I’m sad,’ you don’t have the energy to fight it anymore.”
Never mind that the two didn’t consider themselves hardcore hikers when they started out. Voss and Anderson soon experienced everything the road could throw at them, from uncomfortable gravel shoulders to shadeless stretches of sunbaked asphalt to tennis ball–sized blisters. They walked along highways, country roads, ATV tracks and wooded trails—any route that took them in the right direction over the least-difficult terrain. They camped in single-person tents or splurged on a hotel room and hot shower. As word of their journey spread on social media, veterans and their families came out to offer them a place to stay, a picnic lunch, or simple gratitude for their service.
They learned to ask locals which route was the easiest, and drew from their military training—where their motto was “adapt and overcome”—to adjust their plans when necessary. While resting in Grand Island, Nebraska, they chose a seemingly direct path toward Denver for the following day’s trek. But as they watched the local news that night, “there was a freak snowstorm in northwestern Nebraska that literally froze cattle in place. So we’re like, let’s not walk that way,” Anderson says.
Nature could be cruel, but also soothing to their psyches. After a few days, Voss felt himself sync up with his pastoral surroundings. “There’s a shift that happens, where everything kind of slows down a little bit. You become more in tune with your environment. I felt that once I left the city.”
Anderson lost himself in the vastness of the space around them, gaining a different perspective on the issues he struggled with. “I’m looking at where I live, I’m looking at my country, the country I was willing to defend,” he says. “You get new contexts with which to look at the world. To have that stretch where you’re walking in the mountains—that, in and of itself, is therapeutic. You’re very small compared to this massive thing.”
Along the way, many veterans joined them for short stretches. An Iraq vet in Colorado named Mike, who had followed Voss’ and Anderson’s progress on Facebook even before they left Milwaukee, became an inspiration for them. Mike was never struck by a bullet, but had been exposed to numerous explosions that had traumatized his body. “He was determined to walk with us, and he did for about seven or 10 miles,” Anderson says, “even though that was the most physical activity he’d had in quite a long time.”
Others, like a group of Vietnam vets in Arizona, wanted to talk about their time in war or what is was like to be home. Some wanted to hear what Voss and Anderson heard from people across America—“ ‘how were other veterans treating us; how were communities treating us?’ It was a great opportunity to learn different lessons from other people,” Anderson says.
“It also showed us that there are other veterans, literally across the country, that are going through the same things that we were going through,” Voss adds. “It reinforced that you’re not alone in this; a lot of veterans from Vietnam and from the current conflicts are struggling every day to live with post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, depression, all these different symptoms. And a lot of them feel like they are alone. Hopefully, we showed them that was not the case.”
About five months after leaving Milwaukee, the duo reached Santa Monica Pier. They realized then what they thought was an end to their quest for clarity was the real beginning of their recovery.
“I don’t think that the walk fixed everything, but I believe the walk put things in motion that otherwise would have remained stagnant,” Anderson says.
Voss joined a meditation workshop specifically for veterans dealing with moral injuries led by Project Welcome Home Troops, a nonprofit organization. Scenes in the documentary show Voss struggling, ultimately successfully, to leave most of his past in the past.
“That whole breakthrough process was pretty life-changing for me. It has really changed my life for the better,” he says. Voss now serves as the group’s national veteran liaison.
Anderson and his family moved to the “middle of nowhere,” away from the traffic and distractions of city life, where he continues to learn how to “be present, mentally and physically. I’m trying to reconnect with my family. If I hadn’t done the walk, I wouldn’t be where I’m at with them right now,” he says.
The duo urges the VA to offer a wider range of mental health services, including mindfulness skills, to veterans, their families and communities. Between 18 and 22 veterans commit suicide every day, according to a 2012 report, and Anderson says the military should be more receptive to service members who are having difficulty coping with the demands of war, both during and after deployment. “The VA has done better over the last several years in opening up to different [treatments], but I still think that mindfulness, that meditation, need to be much more in the mainstream.”
Voss adds, “Veterans are a disadvantaged population, and it’s really important to shine a light on these men and women who are thrown aside after they’re done serving their country.”
“Almost Sunrise” runs May 27 at 6:30 p.m. at the Michael D. Palm Theatre, May 29 at 9:15 a.m. at the High Camp-Telluride Conference Center, and May 30 at 11:45 a.m. at the High Camp-Telluride Conference Center. Visit mountainfilm.org for more info.