NEWBURYPORT — Now entering the final weeks of his cross-country walk in support of the nation’s veterans, William Shuttleworth reflected Tuesday on the new friends and perspectives his adventure has awarded him.
The 71-year-old Market Street resident and Air Force veteran left Newburyport on May 15 with a 25-pound backpack and two trekking poles, kicking off a 3,000-mile walk to California to talk with veterans and their families along the way.
He started the walk to raise public awareness about the health care, housing and financial issues dealt with by men and women who have served in the U.S. military.
The trip, dubbed “Vets Don’t Forget Vets,” was originally estimated to last 7½ months, but Shuttleworth, never one to drag his feet, is well ahead of schedule. He anticipates reaching his destination in San Diego on Sept. 1, where he will be greeted with a congratulatory ceremony aboard the aircraft carrier USS Midway.
On Tuesday, Shuttleworth was approaching his next stop in Cameron, Arizona, where he said the stifling Southwestern heat was doing its best to slow him down.
“Right now, it’s 95 degrees and that takes the stuffing right out of you,” Shuttleworth said on his cell phone as he walked along the roadside.
He said the high temperatures have been the only real challenge or threat he has encountered on his journey recently, and they have done little to hamper his speed. But instead of walking at least 30 miles per day, Shuttleworth has had to slow his pace to about 25 miles a day.
To beat the heat, Shuttleworth said he’s been getting on the road early, by about 5 a.m. With little shelter from the sun available, he has been walking nearly nonstop all day, making sure to have an ample supply of water and food handy to stay energized.
“Walking right now, I can’t see a single tree,” he said. “There’s nowhere to take shade, so you’ve got to keep going. It’s hard work and I’m not going to minimize it.”
Since the Vets Don’t Forget Vets journey began, heavy media coverage has made Shuttleworth an online sensation, resulting in daily greetings from countless supporters and generous welcomes from numerous communities. And he said none of that has slowed as the trip has worn on.
Although he still has many miles to go, the tone in Shuttleworth’s voice suggests he is already lamenting its end. His remarks predicting a “bittersweet” arrival in San Diego confirmed that.
“The people continue to be fantastic, I’ve met thousands of them and I’ve been given lifetime friends and many others who support me,” he said.
Last weekend, Shuttleworth stayed in the Navajo Nation, where he met with descendants of Navajo men who served as code talkers for the U.S. military during World War II.
Code talkers were Native Americans — many of whom were Navajo — employed during the war to transmit messages using words from their native languages, languages the enemy couldn’t decipher.
The visit was eye opening for Shuttleworth, who described the harsh realities endured by the country’s American Indians, many of whom are veterans.
“These Native Americans have been given crap land, crap resources and crap funds that are skimmed off the top by bureaucrats in Washington, yet they serve with dignity,” Shuttleworth said.
“We marginalize minorities, and they make up over 40 percent of everyone in the military,” he added. “All that we do to marginalize people that aren’t in the majority is to our own detriment. These people live on nothing, yet they don’t ask for anything.”
Shuttleworth ensured his work will continue far beyond the final steps of his cross-country walk and said that soon he hopes to start working to create a national organization based on one of the trip’s initiatives: to end veteran homelessness.
All along the way, his biggest supporter has been his wife, Patty Shuttleworth, who said she has been impressed with the amount of support and care offered by people across the country.
“It’s just been totally lovely, and it renews your faith in humanity,” she said.
Back in Newburyport, Shuttleworth will receive a welcome home ceremony at City Hall on Sept. 5 at 10 a.m., during which his efforts will be recognized by Veterans Agent Kevin Hunt and City Clerk Richard Jones, among others.
To keep up with Shuttleworth’s journey west, visit his website at https://vetsdontforgetvets.com/.
To donate to his GoFundMe page, visit https://www.gofundme.com/vets-don039t-forget-vets/donate.
Staff writer Jack Shea can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 978-961-3154. Follow him on Twitter @iamjackshea.