Tom Zurhellen experienced serious culture shock when he returned to the Hudson Valley this August. The Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 170 commander and Marist professor spent five months crossing the country alone, often going days at a time without speaking to another person. When he finished his pilgrimage on the Walkway Over the Hudson on Aug. 23, he was greeted by hundreds.

“I was in shock, not only because everyone came out with so much love and support to the Walkway,” Tom told the Boris and Robyn Show shortly after his return home. “I immersed myself in this world of being by myself, of being lonely for five months, and suddenly I’m surrounded by people who wanted to talk to me.”

Tom chose a 22-mile-a-day route for an important reason: one mile to represent each veteran who, according to a 2015 Veterans Administration study, takes their life each day in the U.S. Tom and the VFW Post 170 veterans service project Vet Zero chose $40,387 as the fundraising goal for the cross-country journey. The dollar amount represented another sobering statistic: an average of 40,387 homeless veterans sleep on the street each night.

“That’s why we called our project VetZero, because we wanted to bring these numbers — the 22 and the 40,000 plus — down to zero,” Tom said.

Tom’s parlaying the media focus and public attention his walk across the country drew to veterans’ issues into projects supporting Hudson Valley area veterans. VetZero partnered with Hudson River Housing to announce the VetZero Ride program, which will provide free transportation to area veterans starting Monday, Nov. 11.

VetZero has also started a backpack project to provide essential items to homeless Hudson Valley veterans. The backpacks include items such as deodorant, socks, baby wipes, energy bars and tampons.

In addition, the 2020 Dutchess County Executive Budget proposed by County Executive Marc Molinaro will include $20,000 in emergency assistance to prevent veterans from becoming homeless because of pressing rent or electric bill or some unexpected car repair costs. The emergency assistance is aptly titled the Tommy Zurhellen Fund.