People come from all walks of life with their own values, ethics, and traditions. In 2020, Air Force veteran Jay Miralles launched a powerful movement to raise awareness about the hardships that veterans face. With an initial idea to raise $2,500 for a military-based nonprofit, the question of how to raise the money through action consumed Miralles’ mind. Miralles and his friends Matt Bills and Jaime Seeman agreed on a challenging goal: to walk 50 miles from Lincoln to Omaha to raise awareness for veterans. Together, they cofounded the 50 Mile March Foundation.
When thinking about veterans, the words disciplined and patriotic may come to mind; however, the challenges they face once departing from the military may not. Homelessness and mental health issues make up only a small portion of the many struggles they face. “I saw a need to be more than just an organization,” Miralles said. “I wanted it to be an active movement, I wanted it to be highly visible, and I wanted the walkers to experience that pain and suffering that so many veterans face.”
In 1963, former President John F. Kennedy challenged military personnel to cover 50 miles on foot in 20 hours to properly condition themselves for service. Known as the JFK 50 Mile, the annual ultramarathon inspired the name and direction behind the 50 Mile March Foundation. “It’s fundraising for a purpose,” Miralles said. Initially, he contemplated the idea of hosting a marathon but later concluded he didn’t want his movement to be a race. “This tests your limits, but your mind says, ‘these veterans can do it, so I can do it.’”
The first march took place in August of 2020. With only six walkers, over $25,000 was raised in 72 hours, significantly surpassing Miralles’ original goal of $2,500. Viewers watched from afar via Facebook live as Miralles and his team broadcast their journey. In 2021, the march gathered 39 people and funded over $151,000. This year, Miralles said the march raised nearly $250,000 with 59 walkers.
Not only is a rigorous application process required to walk, but a person must commit to completing the 50 miles in its entirety. Walkers must also raise a minimum of $2,500 and attend mandatory meetings throughout the year. Before beginning, those interested must complete a “qualification march,” which Miralles said will most likely involve a 15-mile hike carrying 15 pounds on one’s back for 2023. To Miralles, walking in the march means “every volunteer immerses themselves in pain,” and every step taken is to remind them of the times veterans went through and how they felt. “Our veterans are in pain—not just for 24 hours. It’s mentally grueling more than it is physically.”
The march begins in Lincoln with the symbolic sleep, during which the walkers lie on the stairs of the Capitol for 22 minutes to represent the 22-a-day statistic: the average number of veterans who die daily by suicide. “It puts you in the mindset of what it’s like to be a homeless veteran,” Miralles said. At 5 p.m., walkers start their rigorous endeavor to Omaha and are only allowed 45- to 75-minute breaks throughout. The fatigue and anguish walkers experience on top of lack of sleep translates into the pain many veterans endure, Miralles said.
Led by a pace vehicle, walkers commence their mission accompanied by multiple RVs, police escorts, a recovery vehicle, and a five-ton army truck to block traffic. With over 50 volunteers, 120,000 steps, and 22 hours of walking, the funds raised during the march serve a deeper purpose: support local organizations and represent endurance, immersion, and challenges veterans face.
This year, the 50 Mile March Foundation pledged to invest in three nonprofits: Moving Veterans Forward, Guitars for Vets, and Operation 22 Til Freedom. Miralles said these organizations were chosen based on the impact they have on the community while operating on limited budgets. Air Force veteran and 2021-2022 walker Peggy Ullom said the march “goes beyond talking and moves into action.” As the National Development Director and Nebraska Chapter Coordinator of Guitars for Vets, Ullom said her experience in the march has enabled her to form lifesaving connections. “We are building an army of people who are working hard to support the veteran community, and that helps meet the needs of our veterans quicker and on a more personal level.”
Waiting at the finish line, masses of supporters gather, bearing American flags to celebrate an emotional, accomplished mission. In retrospect, Miralles said Seeman and Bills thought he was crazy for wanting to launch a 22-hour march, but their values aligned and they were all in. Miralles said his long-term vision is to have a project that provides housing for veterans so they can live prosperous lives. “They fought for this country. We want to be the roots in the ground that reach out to people who we think might need help—because help starts here. We don’t want to just help, we want to serve.” For more information or to apply for next year’s walk, visit 50milemarch.org.