By Melissa Quinn
Alexandria native Brendan O’Toole was fed up.
He served his country for four years in the Marines — and served it well — completing two deployments in Haiti and Afghanistan. And now he was being told no from the very country he put his life on the line for.
O’Toole, who enlisted a year after graduating from T.C. Williams in 2007, sustained injuries to his back and neck during his time in the military and returned home with an honorable discharge.
Back in Alexandria, he watched many of the Marines whom he served alongside struggle with the transition back to civilian life. The Pentagon works hard preparing soldiers for battle but does little to outfit them once removed from service.
Then, one of his military buddies committed suicide, ending his personal war with the post-Iraq demons in his head.
Not long after ending his service, O’Toole visited the Department of Veteran Affairs to deal with his battle scars. He had been prescribed medicine from the military as treatment for a neck injury sustained in Afghanistan, and he needed more.
But Veteran Affairs told him no, that it couldn’t help him and sent him home. The very country he risked everything for denied him help.
It was the last straw.
“That was the last thing that pissed me off,” he said. “I found that shocking … after doing everything the country told me to do for four years … I started thinking about the guys I served with.”
So he decided to run — run far and wide for his fellow brothers and sisters in arms.
GO EAST, YOUNG MAN
The VA is backlogged and the system is clogged, O’Toole said.
According to the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting, a veteran waits an average of 318 days before the government responds to a first-time claim. And for those who appeal, the wait time more than triples — to upward of 1,300 days.
The VA has more than 880,000 claims pending nationally.
“There’s a lot of people out there who need help,” O’Toole said. “Seeing guys putting their lives down and not being able to transition back to normal life needs to be addressed.”
After O’Toole saw first-hand the backlog problems with Veteran Affairs, he took measures into his own hands, creating a nonprofit called The Run for Veterans.
O’Toole decided to run 15 miles per day, five days a week, for a year in an effort to raise money for his fellow comrades. He started November 11 — Veterans Day — in Oceanside, Calif., and will end in Portland, Maine, exactly a year later.
By the end of his journey, O’Toole will have traveled 3,600 miles through 21 states.
While many organizations support wounded warriors, O’Toole focuses on the social, mental and physical well-being of soldiers, channeling his fundraising efforts toward three organizations — the USO, Team Red, White and Blue, and Give an Hour.
After a year on the road, O’Toole hopes to have raised $2 million — divided up between the three partner organizations. He’s brought in about $73,000.
“We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” said Beth Horrigan, O’Toole’s cousin and co-founder of The Run for Veterans. “Not every veteran that comes back is a wounded warrior. We wanted to focus on the holistic well-being of vets.”
‘ONE STEP AT A TIME’
Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays are the days O’Toole runs.
He tries to keep Wednesdays and Sundays as rest days, if all goes to plan. A typical day revolves around phone calls, emails, marketing events and, of course, 15 miles on the road.
“If you take it one step at a time, you’re going to cross the finish line together,” O’Toole said. “We’re keeping our word to who we said we’re going to help, and who we have helped is what’s keeping us moving forward.”
Days begin around 8 a.m. for O’Toole and his team. The first priority is coffee and breakfast, and then the team takes care of logistics and office duties — all part of the daily functions of The Run for Veterans. Afterward, water tanks are filled, stretches are done and O’Toole hits the road.
Longtime friends and fellow Alexandrians Joey and Timmy Dwyer follow O’Toole in a Toyota Tundra — decked out in the desert-fatigue color that O’Toole once wore. One brother drives while the other shoots film, documenting the entire run.
For the last four to five miles, O’Toole carries the American flag — the stars and stripes rippling in the breeze as he finishes each day. You get a lot more honks when you’re running with the flag, Horrigan said.
“It’s amazing what one cheer from a random person … does for your endurance and your ability to say, ‘OK, I’m not in that much pain,’” said Horrigan, who ran with O’Toole last month.
Though he typically runs alone, O’Toole has enjoyed company along the way, including a Marine several weeks ago and an Army veteran in western Texas.
Alexandrian and Rear Adm. Roy Snyder also ran alongside O’Toole. And as he jogged past a charter school for delinquent juveniles, two 15-year-old students left the schoolyard to join him on his journey — blue jeans and all.
But aches and pains often creep up as O’Toole adds on the miles. He suffers from lots of back pain because of three misplaced discs in his neck, and his iliotibial (IT) bands get tight every once in a while.
A few months ago, O’Toole suffered a stress fracture in his right ankle, forcing him to rest for 26 days.
“We’ve run into several different literal and figurative road blocks,” Horrigan said.
Adding to the wear and tear on O’Toole’s body, the terrain at times has “kicked my butt,” he said.
New Mexico was cold, with runs taking place in negative 12 degrees and during snowstorms. And Texas, well, is big.
Still, O’Toole persists. He has crossed California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and most recently Louisiana state lines, with 16 states left. He’ll come through his hometown of Alexandria, too, as he journeys up the East Coast. And he won’t stop until he hits Maine.
“We’re young and loud, and we want to inspire people who are in dark places,” O’Toole said. “That’s what we do best.”
FIGHTING THROUGH THE PAIN
The aches and pains grow as the miles and states add up, but there isn’t anything that will stop O’Toole.
“This journey is about talking about the issues that are facing our vets,” he said. “When people come out and realize what we’re doing is tough and fun — nothing we’re doing is ridiculous.”
He’s working hard to spread his message — the importance of focusing on the mental, physical and social well-being of the nation’s veterans — to those he encounters along his journey, too.
“I don’t know what the definition of a human being is, but they’re made up of their mental, physical and social well-being,” O’Toole said. “Those three things make up a human, and from there, you fix holes in the country and we built [The Run for Veterans] around that.”
His mission is spreading. As O’Toole and his team crossed into Texas, they met with Gov. Rick Perry and former President George W. Bush, Horrigan said.
“It was a moral booster,” O’Toole said. “It opened up our eyes that what we’re doing is so important that is warrants a meeting with a president.”
Additionally, O’Toole frequently meets with high schools and police departments in the towns he runs through, American flag and pickup truck in tow.
“There’s a big gap to fill,” he said. “The most important thing is raising awareness, sharing our positivity and letting people know there are services out there.”
For O’Toole, the mission has taken on more than raising awareness about the hurdles facing returning veterans. It’s about doing what’s right by his fellow soldiers — those who came before him and those who will come after him.
“I’m confident we can get there,” O’Toole said. “We are changing lives, and I’ve seen it first hand.”