#nomadicveterans: Men on a Mission
Former Army Rangers Marty Skovlund and Leonidas Jenkins are veterans on a mission. The two longtime friends, who between them have 9 combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan—and who went on to become published authors and successful small business owners—have now teamed up for one more task. Their objective: to raise money for GallantFew, a veteran-run non-profit that seeks to help military veterans transition from warfighters to private citizens, with a particular focus on homelessness, mental health, and suicide prevention.
Marty and Leo are calling their effort “Nomadic Veterans.” Here’s how it works: the duo set out on foot from Denver, Colorado with only the supplies they could carry on their backs, seeking to make it as far as they can in 21 days. To do this, they’ll endure exposure, deprivation, and discomfort, pushing themselves to their physical and mental limits while relying on their own abilities and the support of both longtime friends and total strangers. Along the way, they are raising funds for GallantFew through pledges and direct donations, and are spreading the word about important veterans’ issues.
The catch: they’re trying to do it all on a total budget of $100 each.
The Nomadic Veterans departed Denver on June 7th and have been on the road ever since. We caught up with the pair as they were leaving Columbus, Ohio and continuing their journey towards the East Coast. They provided Ranger Up with this exclusive interview, which includes details and photos of their trip that have not been seen anywhere else.
Let’s start with the basics. Marty, who are you guys, and what do you want the world to know about Nomadic Veterans?
Marty: Our names are Marty Skovlund and Leo Jenkins, we both served in 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions, respectively, during the War on Terror. We have a total of nine deployments between the two of us, and we’re both out of the military now and we’re both writers and small business owners.
As far as Nomadic Veterans goes, we want the world to know that we’re going as far as we can in 21 days to raise money for a charity called GallantFew, and along the way we’re doing all we can to engage with as many people as possible, through as many outlets as possible, to cast a light on the various issues facing veterans. In addition to focusing on big-picture issues like veteran homelessness, suicide and PTSD, I think there are also guys out there with other issues that tend to get overlooked. I think we might be able to reach those guys BEFORE they become homeless or suicidal or socially dysfunctional by helping them make the transition from the military to the civilian workforce.
That sounds like a very worthwhile endeavor! Leo, you and Marty both spent time in the 75th Ranger Regiment. How did your Army service, particularly your time as Rangers, prepare you for this undertaking?
Leo: Because of our time in the Rangers, we’re accustomed to being cold, tired, hungry, wet… and we’re able to revert back to those times in training, or in Afghanistan or Iraq, and we’re able to say, “we made it through that, we’ll make it through this.” Plus being able to tap into that Ranger and veteran network as we move forward on this has been enormously helpful as well. Additionally, we know that what we’re doing is for a good cause, and that helps keep us going strong.
Marty, with all of the veteran-focused charities out there, why did you select Gallant Few?
Marty: There are definitely a lot of great charities out there doing a lot of really good stuff for veterans. For example, you guys at Ranger Up have the “Vetrepreneur” program, where you sponsor a veteran employee for a year and then give him seed money to start his own small business. And I’ve personally talked to the guys who started Team Red White and Blue and Team Rubicon and they’re doing amazing things with their programs. There’s also the Warrior Scholar Project, which originated at Yale University, and helps vets transition from the battlefield to the college classroom. GallantFew is a little bit smaller, not a lot of people know about them, but their mission is really in line with the things we wanted to focus on during this trip, specifically how they help mentor other veterans and help them out before they get to a place that it will be hard to get out of. If we do this again, we might try to promote a different charity. But for now, we’re all-in for GallantFew.
You said “if we do this again,” any chance that this could turn into something even bigger, with more veterans and different destination?
Leo: Yes! We’ve been talking a lot about that actually, about doing maybe some kind of race, maybe have a group of guys start off in the same location, and see how far they can get in the same amount of time with the same amount of money, and maybe have a sponsor match the donations of whoever was the winner. You know originally we didn’t plan this out very much. Marty called me when I was down in Santiago, Chile two weeks ago and pitched it to me. I said, “Sounds cool!” but we didn’t plan it out much more than that. We were talking about how much bigger, and better, this could be all around if we spent six months to a year out planning it. We could have that much more involvement, both from the media and from other veterans, we could have a tracker where people could see exactly where we are, right down to the hour, all kinds of things. Now, I don’t know if I’ll be the one going out on the next one, I’ll probably be behind the scenes. But I can definitely can see something bigger, and even more interactive, next year.
A question for both of you: GallantFew focuses on transitions, homelessness, and suicides in the veteran community. Have either of you had to deal with any of this personally?
Marty: You know, after getting out of the military and blowing through most of my contingency plans, I’ve been closer to some of the major issues than I’d like to be, but I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve never been suicidal, I like to think that I don’t have PTSD, or any of the really big issues our brothers and sisters in arms have faced. I will say that I faced a rather rough transition, it took me a while to go from the military to a fully-adjusted civilian. I’d like to do my part to help others have an easier time of it in the future.
Leo: I’ve hit about every pitfall one can imagine in the last seven and a half years. I’ve had a particularly difficult time with assimilation, and there’s not a part of that that I haven’t experienced somewhat or gone through directly. Some issues I had in the past were more severe than others, but yeah this was definitely something I’m passionate about at this point because I’ve already walked all of those miles in those shoes already.
You’ve been on the road for a week now and you’ve already made it from Denver to past Columbus, Ohio. It’s not that far to the East Coast… what are you going to do when you get to the Atlantic?
Leo: (jokingly) We’re going to swim! We’re going to show those Navy SEALs what’s up! I’m going to go into my combat side stroke, see you on the other side of the Atlantic.
Marty (laughing) Once we get to New York City, we’re going to be able to make a hop across courtesy of a sponsored airline ticket and continue the journey east. The goal is to put as much straight-line distance between us and Denver as possible, that’s how we’ll calculate those per-mile donations for GallantFew. We’re shooting for 5,000 miles, but if we can exceed that, that would be amazing.
While we’re in New York City, we’re hoping to attract some more media attention to this cause, so anyone reading this, if you have some ideas for media outlets that might be interested in talking to us, or better yet if you ARE one of those outlets, we’d love to come talk to you while we’re in the New York area. And if you’re a veteran with a good story to tell, or if you just want to talk, please hit us up on Facebook or contact the guys who did this interview and they can put you in contact with us.
Have you had much interaction with media outlets so far?
Marty: Oh yeah! We’re still looking to break into the national-level media, but we’ve done some great interviews with a number of local stations already. We’re also doing our own documentary, and have been conducting a number of interviews with other veterans on our own.
You started off with only $100 in your pocket, how much do you have left? What are you going to do when the money runs out?
Leo: I spent $1.07 on an ice cream cone, it was delicious, I would do it again, I regret nothing! In fact, Marty had to talk me out of getting four or five more of them. (both laughing) You know, on a serious note, we’ve tried to preserve those resources as much as possible. Right now we’ve had a lot of great people take really good care of us, putting us up in their houses, feeding us, and helping us get on down the road. But we know that if we make it overseas that our network is going to dry up a bit, we’re not going to have the same support infrastructure as we’ve had so far in the US so it’s going to be imperative to have a little bit of money in our pockets. We’re still going to depend on the “kindness of strangers” but we’re saving against the possibility that we might have $6 left and half a day to make our goal, so all that money is going to go towards getting us as far down the road as possible, by whatever means possible.
What has been your most memorable experience so far?
Marty:Oh, that’s easy. Today was absolutely amazing. We went into this American Legion with Patriot Pinups, which is a non-profit that helps out here with the Freedom Flights, they brought us over to the Legion and we were able to meet a number of World War II and Korea veterans, we got to talk a little about what we were doing, and to meet some really great people. Along with the other things we’re doing on this trip, we’re interviewing veterans and getting their perspectives on re-integration. We thought, “how cool would it be to get the perspective of a World War II veteran?” So we asked around, and we were able to talk to a man who was a Navy UDT diver during the Korean War, one of the predecessors of the modern US Navy SEALs. This guy was truly amazing, talking about working as a UDT when SCUBA wasn’t really all that developed, eight-and-a-half-mile open-water swims into combat… just really amazing stuff. We met a lot of super-interesting people so far, but today was definitely the best.
Both of you have “day jobs,” what do you do when you’re not trekking across the globe for charity?
Marty: I run a small business called Blackside Concepts, I spend most of my time doing graphic design work, or pushing products, or writing and editing articles for our blogs, Havok Journal and Hit the Woodline. We also have a book coming out called “Violence of Action,” which is a collection of personal vignettes from Rangers engaged in the War on Terror from 2001-2011. But more importantly than all of that, right now my wife and I are preparing for the arrival of our first child, which is due in about two months.
Leo: After I sold my last gym in Colorado five or six months ago, I spent some time down in Latin America, competing in the various Crossfit competitions down there. I’ve also been working on my newest book, On Assimilation, which involves a lot of the issues that we’re trying to highlight through Nomadic Veterans.
So both of you are published authors, are you going to write a book about your Nomadic Veterans experiences?
Marty: Right now, we’re really just focused on finishing the trip and raising as much money as we can for GallantFew. But because of some of the really unique experiences we have had, we expect that once we get back we might be able to write some really good articles or short stories. What I think is more likely is that we’ll publish the documentary we’re shooting, that will definitely happen. As far as a book, if that will help bring attention and more importantly help to the issues that drove us to go on this trip in the first place, then that’s something we’ll consider down the road. So while we’re not concerned about that right now, it’s definitely a possibility.
Any parting thoughts before you get back on the road?
Leo: We wouldn’t even have been able to get out of Denver if it weren’t for all the help we’ve received along the way. I think it’s important for veterans to know, and to see, that it is OK to ask for help when you need it, either for things like what we’re doing, or for more important things like mental and physical health issues, transitioning to civilian life. We have already surpassed what Marty and I would have been able to achieve on our own. We have relied on a lot of really great people along the way; we’ve been given food, and shelter, and transportation… we wouldn’t have gotten nearly this far without people stepping up and helping out. It just goes to show that there is a huge community of people throughout the country who absolutely and unconditionally support the troops, whether they are still in uniform or not. And we don’t really see that showcased or highlighted enough. We see the problems with the VA, we see that veteran suicides are sky-high, but we don’t see some of the positive things that are going on within the veteran community, and some of the ways vets in trouble might be able to get some help. I’m kind of seeing it for the first time myself right now, I mean so many people have gone so far out of their way to help us, it’s pretty amazing.
Marty: I’d just say too that if you see us between here and NYC, stop and say hi, if you’re able to donate to support GallantFew or to help us get a little further down the road please do so, or help us get the word out. We’re hoping that the bigger this thing gets, the more we’re going to be able to force a dialogue about these issues. Right now we’re focused on a couple of the major problems facing the veteran community, but we all know that these things aren’t the end-all, be-all of veterans’ issues and we see this as just another beginning, not an ending, of an important discussion that needs to take place not just among veterans, but among all Americans.
Thanks for your time, good luck and keep us posted!
You can track the progress of the Nomadic Veterans, see other interviews they’ve done, or donate to their cause, at http://www.gallantfew.org/nomads/