Every veteran matters.
That’s the message that participants and volunteers hope to convey each year when they make the 50-mile trek from the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln to Nebraska Brewing Co. in Omaha.
“It doesn’t matter how many homeless there are in Nebraska. It doesn’t matter how many have PTSD. It matters that there’s one. One is too many,” said Jay Miralles, co-founder and CEO of the 50 Mile March.
Showing up for Veterans
Approaching its fifth anniversary, 191 people have applied to participate in the next 50 Mile March on August 24-25, 2024. A maximum of 100 will be accepted.
Due to the physical and mental stamina needed to complete the 22-hour walk, applicants go through a substantial vetting process.
Currently, the vetting process includes a 15-mile group walk with two training stops. At both training stops applicants have to complete two circuits consisting of planks, jumping jacks, and high knees in one-minute intervals.
In addition to monitoring pace, evaluators are also looking at participants’ attitudes.
“We do that because it’s safety first,” Miralles said.
If accepted, participants are on the hook to raise a minimum of $2,500.
“We’re looking for committed people,” he said. “We have veterans on the street begging for their next meal. If you can’t ask your friends for $10 you’re not committed.”
A $3.5 Million Dream
While previous missions benefited organizations like Guitars For Vets and Moving Veterans Forward, this year’s funds will go towards an entirely new initiative.
The initiative, aptly named Operation Homebase, is a $3.5 million campaign to create a one-of-a-kind community to support veterans as they transition to civilian life.
“When you leave a system that thinks for you, feeds you, and clothes you in exchange for following their orders, you lose your purpose,” Miralles said. “When I left the military I had a hard time adjusting and that’s where I lost my way.”
He experienced homelessness and struggled with his mental health.
“But I was too proud to ask for help,” he said.
Operation Homebase will feature 22 tiny homes as well as a community center and a new warehouse for Moving Veterans Forward. Miralles said the community center will host events teaching residents life skills, like how to balance a checkbook, budget, or apply for a home loan.
Residents will work for Moving Veterans Forward, eventually transitioning into jobs with partner organizations, such as Werner Enterprises.
Werner Enterprises has been recognized consistently for its dedication to providing employment opportunities to veterans, most recently being recognized with a 2023 Military Friendly Company Designation and a 2023 VETS Indexes 4 Star Employer.
Greg Hamm, vice president of field and government recruiting for Werner, noted that 20% of its workforce is veterans.
“Veterans bring a unique blend of discipline, leadership, and problem-solving skills to the workforce, making them an invaluable asset to any organization,” he said.
Miralles said sometimes veterans aren’t able to see the skills Hamm mentioned as applicable to civilian life, leading them to believe they’re unemployable.
“When I left the military I felt so socially inept,” he said. “I felt like people on the outside were so much smarter and more equipped. The voices in my head told me ‘You’re not good enough.’”
Providing a pathway to employment is one way to redirect negative thoughts. Another is providing a community support system. The goal is to have Ron Hernandez, the Omaha veteran who founded Moving Veterans Forward, live full-time in the community to offer support.
The Greater Omaha community can support Operation Homebase in a variety of ways. Aside from applying to walk in the 50 Mile March or monetary donations, the event is also in need of volunteers.
Executive Director Leon Haith said the organization is always in need of volunteers to help set up the final destination celebration at Nebraska Brewing Co. They are also in need of ground crew volunteers to help maintain the safety of the walkers.
As the executive director and a parent of a walker, he said safety is the biggest concern.
“[When] my daughter called me and said she was doing the 50 Mile March from Lincoln to Omaha I said “no you’re not,”” Haith said. “I was worried about the safety.”
Haith’s daughter was steadfast in her desire to support veterans, like Haith. Haith served for 34 years in the United States Army retiring as a command sergeant major after deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Haith said when he showed up at the rendezvous point in Lincoln his daughter handed him an operation order.
“I read it and saw they had obviously put the time into it like any military mission,” he said.
Haith followed his daughter’s progress and was there to hand her an old pair of stretched-out tennis shoes so she could finish the walk.
“She was hurting, but she was ready to do it again. She would have done it last year, but she fractured her ankle. She rode with me as a volunteer,” Haith said.
Their story is not unique in this crowd, where veterans, family members, and friends, have signed up to walk or volunteer. However, every story is unique.
“I wish you could hear everybody’s story,” Haith said.
MBJ had the opportunity to collect a small sampling of those stories, which you can read on the following pages. For more information on 50 Mile March, visit 50milemarch.org.