Retired soldier’s nationwide walk raising awareness of veteran suicides

May 1, 2019

POCATELLO — Jimmy Novak’s mind wandered as he walked the hilly, dirt and gravel roads through the high desert between Boise and Mountain Home.

The 42-year-old retired Army soldier from DuPont, Washington, thought about his personal struggles with anxiety, depression and survivor’s guilt. Those feelings prompted him to set out on a cross-country hike to raise awareness about the high suicide rate among military veterans.

With each step on his trek from his hometown to Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, Novak aims to reassure veterans struggling with mental anguish that they’re not alone, and help is available. He arrived in Pocatello on April 25 — having been detoured from his planned route through Yellowstone National Park by a rock slide and inclement weather — and he’ll resume walking on Wednesday morning.

He thought about how the cows seemed to recognize him as an outsider and gave him dirty looks as he plodded past their pastures, pushing his belongings in a jogging stroller ill equipped for countless miles of use on unimproved roads.

The road conditions made him briefly question the wisdom of his decision, but he was grateful to see no rain clouds, as mud would have made for even more taxing hiking conditions.

“I believe that it’s worthwhile, and I believe that it’s doable, and I believe that by doing what I’m doing, it’s going to have good outcomes for myself, my family and the community I’m trying to serve,” Novak said during a Monday visit to the Idaho State Journal office, about five weeks into his trip.

He also reflected on religious and philosophical questions, and his goal to obtain certification to become a high school history teacher when he finishes his adventure.

The number 22 has symbolic importance in his quest, based on the findings of a 2012 national data report that 22 veterans lose their lives to suicide each day. He left home on March 22 and aims to reach Disney World, where he’ll meet his wife and family, on Aug. 22.

Novak retired as an Army sergeant in January 2019 and took a job as a coffee barista. He can empathize with veterans who struggle psychologically. He recalled on Dec. 21, 2004, while deployed in Iraq, he asked his commander to join him at the mess hall. The commander was running a couple of minutes late, and Novak, therefore, wasn’t present when a suicide bomber struck the dining area, killing more than 20 people.

“I personally developed a lot of survivor’s guilt,” Novak said. “I felt like people I knew and respected and cared about were injured and hurt when I wasn’t.”

Novak also had a hard time accepting that some of his colleagues were assigned to kick down doors and engage in firefights, while his job kept him in the safety of the base.

“I didn’t feel my experience of conflict justified my emotional response,” Novak said.

Novak said he endured two suicidal episodes. The first time, a short while after the mess hall bombing, he actually rehearsed how he planned to take his own life. During the second episode, he drank heavily.

Counseling sessions have helped Novak move past those feelings. He was initially reluctant to seek help, based on the stigma and his own fears that he would risk losing his Army security clearance. As it turned out, the Army couldn’t have been more supportive, and talking about his feelings with mental health professionals was extremely helpful.

“It helped me realize the problems I was struggling with were manageable,” said Novak, whose red beard is peppered with gray hair and skin is now sunburned from weeks of walking. “Just because somebody is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, that’s not a permanent condition.”

His wife, Heather, is a nurse practitioner and has supported his effort financially. Novak originally estimated the trip would cost about $24,000. He’s come in well under his budget thus far, due largely to officials with the American Legion, who learned of his effort and have been putting him up in hotels and helping him find lodging. He’s also found accommodations from social media sites and people he’s met along the way.

Though he’s an introvert by nature, he’s forcing himself to share his story with as many strangers as possible and to promote the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK.

He’ll finish the trip on his 43rd birthday, though he’ll likely have to drive a few sections through Wyoming to make up lost time.

He’s posting a blog about his hike at JLNovak.com. Though he was unable to hike to Yellowstone a friend from the American Legion in Idaho Falls drove him to the park, where he took a photograph in front of Old Faithful geyser.

The hiking has been healthy for Novak both physically and mentally. He’s dropped 20 pounds, and his wife insists she’s never heard him more upbeat.