AUSTIN - Many veterans across the U.S. raise funds for other veterans every year. One Ohio native -- visiting Austin over the Christmas holiday-- is putting his cause on his back...literally.
Eli Smith knew he wanted to serve in the military from a very early age.
"I was born in San Diego, raised as a kid in Florida and grew up in Columbus, Ohio," Smith said. "I've been everywhere."
Smith served in the Army in South Korea until finishing his service in 2002. Since he got out, he said he's had the urge to find a way to give back to veterans.
"It's been a long thing pecking at the back of my brain," Smith said.
Smith decided to started a trek across the United States and call it "4CornersHike." He would hike more than 13,000 miles to the four corners of the country over the span of three and a half years.
"I sold everything I had to get this trek started," Smith said. "My pickup truck. My electronics. My furniture. Everything is gone. I'm away from my family. I'm jobless. I'm technically homeless. I have no possessions other than what's on my bag."
While making this hike, Smith set up a GoFundMe page as he hopes to raise money for veterans with PTSD.
"People have said my hike is crazy and impossible," Smith said. "As hard as it's going to be, it's nothing compared to what someone with PTSD goes through every day."
Smith started in Pensacola, Florida and is using a GPS transponder to make his way all the way around the country. As of Christmas Eve, Smith is about 600 miles into his journey, finding himself in Austin.
"The south has been really good," Smith said with a smile. "Texas has been great."
Smith expected to have to use his MSR Hubba Hubba NX tent while in Central Texas until someone he met in Alabama connected him to Tess Johnson, a navy mom who is a part of the group "Homes for Traveling Sailors."
"Any military, no matter what branch comes through Texas, we have an open home that they can stay in for free," Johnson said.
Johnson is experiencing a first this year as her oldest son is currently serving in Pensacola, Florida -- where Smith's trek began.
"They go through a lot that we never really understand, so they really need all the support they can get," Johnson said. "We're happy to do what we can."
So Johnson decided to let Smith stay with her family for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
"It's fantastic," Smith said. "They even have a stocking for me. I didn't even think I would have any kind of Christmas really this year."
Smith's expedition is just beginning and Johnson's home is still without a son, but both agree their unexpected meeting brought meaning to the season.
"It really didn't feel like Christmas a couple days ago, but staying with them has really changed that outlook," Smith said. "It really feels like Christmas."
Once Smith gets through the holiday season, he will begin the next leg of his trip as he will be heading through about eight towns and 575 miles to El Paso. To learn more about Smith's hike or how you can follow his journey, you can click here. To check out Smith's GoFundMe page, you can click here.
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