Jay Zimmerman begins trek across East Tennessee for veteran mental health awareness

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GREENE COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) — It’s the start of a long week of hard work for Jay Zimmerman and his service dog Beau.

Zimmerman, an employee of the James H. Quillen Medical Center has set off on foot across East Tennessee on a quest to raise awareness for suicide prevention.

It’s being called a “ruck”, which in the military, means a march, or hike while carrying a
weighted rucksack.

Zimmerman is a former Army staff sergeant who understands firsthand the battle with mental health for veterans. May is Mental Health Awareness Month and now was the perfect time to set out on this journey, however, the plan had been in the works for many months prior.

“This would be what I call just one of those crazy moments that I had sitting at home one night, just talking to my wife and I said I have this crazy idea I want to pitch,” said Zimmerman.

In December, he dreamed up the idea, pitched it, and it was approved. His team could not be more excited about this important mission.

“Mental health has a lot of stigma to it and we don’t want that. We want people to be able to talk about their recovery and we want to walk alongside them as they heel,” said Community Engagement and Partnership Coordinator (CEPC) for the Knoxville VA, Autumn Lowry.

Zimmerman said this walk isn’t only for veterans, but for everyone who is struggling with their mental health.

“We want to raise awareness of suicide and right now, roughly 17 veterans a day are just dying by suicide and also mental health in general because it’s not just a veteran problem,” he said.

Zimmerman set out on his trek from the James H. Quillen VA Medical Center around 6:30 a.m. Monday, completing an over 20-mile journey to David Crockett Birthplace State Park shortly after 1 p.m. The park acted as his stopping point for the day so he and his 2-year-old American Bulldog could rest and participate in the first of five community town halls hosted throughout this journey.

The VA’s suicide prevention team is holding these town halls at 1:30 p.m. each day, with Jay and Beau available to speak with Veterans and community members at each location from 12:00 to 3:00 p.m.

Below is a list for the next town hall stops along the way:

  • May 25: Veterans Memorial Park, Greeneville, TN
  • May 26: Newport City Park, Newport, TN
  • May 27: Patriot Park, Pigeon Forge, TN
  • May 28: Herbert Holt Park, Gatlinburg TN

All are welcome and encouraged to attend these town halls. “We want all of our veterans to feel like a part of this and we want all of them to know that we hear their voices, we see their struggles and we’re right here,” said Lowry.

Zimmerman plans to wake up early Tuesday and continue on his ruck, averaging about 20 miles a day. He said he plans to be in Gatlinburg by Friday.

He also said he appreciates the support from people driving by, honking and waving, and those texting and calling him. Zimmerman said while he may not be immediately responding to these messages, he sees them and the support means the world to him.

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