During the Vietnam War, Ron Zaleski served in the U.S. Marine Corps.
The day before he was scheduled to be shipped to Vietnam with his unit, his papers were lost.
“I don’t know what happened. All I know is I was retained in the states,” he recalls.
What continues to haunt him is that five of his buddies were wounded and two were killed in Vietnam.
“I was consumed by guilt and anger about the war and all the lives that were lost,” he says.
“My anger was even worse when people looked down on Vietnam veterans and called us baby killers.”
Like a lot of other veterans, he was depressed and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
As he saw many veterans were committing suicide, he knew he had to step up and call attention to what was then a major problem out of the limelight.
As a memorial to military people who lost their lives, Ron stopped wearing shoes and began an improbable march across the country. He carried a sign saying 22 veterans a day commit suicide.
Wherever he went, people asked why he wasn’t wearing shoes. When he explained its significance, he added: “Going without shoes is nothing compared to the sacrifices of our wounded veterans.”
That barefooted walk caught the attention of the media that, in turn, focused on the need for more support for veterans.
During two separate 3,500-mile walks across the country, Ron was approached every day by someone who had lost a veteran to suicide.
“A mother who lost her child held me and cried. Every day I had a similar emotional encounter with someone who lost a loved one,” he said.
Calling his barefooted walks “The Long Walk Home,” he also used social media to call attention to the need for ongoing help for veterans.
After 911, he knew he had to do more to help veterans.
While he admits he’s still a work in progress, he started a successful veteran’s charity and outreach program that helps veterans on multiple levels.
In addition to helping veterans with specific needs, the program arranges therapeutic trips and subsidizes gym memberships.
Ron holds a guided empowerment class for veterans at 1:30 p.m. each Tuesday at the Venice YMCA.
Now, he’s brought that successful program to Englewood, and it’s held Tuesday evenings at the Englewood Chamber of Commerce’s meeting room, 601 S. Indiana Ave.
To make the weekly classes more inclusive, Ron joined forces with Karen Dega, who has been working with anyone dealing with trauma of any kind.
After meeting at the Market That Cares and realizing they had similar goals in helping people dealing with stress and anxiety, Ron and Karen joined to offer the Tuesday night sessions at the Chamber.
Light refreshments are offered at 5 p.m, followed by a group support meeting from 6-7 p.m. Ron then leads a guided empowerment class that ends by focusing on positive things.
In addition to offering helpful self-care tips, the session helps veterans understand they are not alone in their continued struggle.
Although attendance is small because the support group is just starting, Karen and Ron said working with a small group allows them to better help attendees.
The support sessions are open to all who need help, not just to veterans. They are also in the process of planning other activities to help those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder
For more information, Ron can be reached at 305-399-5354, while Karen’s contact number is 941-350-3579.