By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
COLOMA — They were nearing the end of their five-day trek along Lake Michigan, when the four men were honked at by a passing car on M-63.
Erik Stoltzner, of Chicago, raised the American flag he was carrying as a signal that the group appreciated the recognition.
Accompanying Stoltzner on the rounding curves of M-63 Friday morning were Matt Williams, from Chicago; Thomas Wolf, of Green Bay, Wis.; and Cole Andrekus, from Kenosha, Wis.
The four wore sunglasses, backpacks filled with supplies and sleeveless shirts marked with the initials “WWP” written across the chest. The letters stand for Wounded Warrior Project, a charitable organization that offers a variety of programs, services and events for wounded veterans. The group has already raised more than $15,000 in making the 136-mile walk from Wilmette Beach in Chicago to South Haven in less than a week.
The money will benefit Wounded Warriors – a cause very dear to them.
“Any pain we have had on this walk is nothing compared to what these warriors go through every single day of their lives after coming home from defending our freedom,” Stoltzner said. “We feel it’s our responsibility and our duty to give back to them the best we can. The debt we owe these warriors can never be repaid, but we can try the best we can.”
Stoltzner and company started planning the project in August of last year.
The Chicago resident came up with the idea during his time spent with the Army ROTC at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin. For workouts, cadets would throw a sack over their back and start walking. Through this experience, Stoltzner called Andrekus and Wolf – who also attend St. Norbert College – to pitch them the idea of walking to South Haven.
Without any hesitation both committed to the project.
Williams, who attended high school with Stoltzner, later discovered the project online and reached out to see if he could participate.
“I was impressed by what the other three wanted to do,” Williams said. “I spent a day or two thinking about it and decided I really wanted to do it with them. I felt like it was something I could really give back to.”
An arduous journey
They began at 7 a.m. Monday and have been moving through Illinois, Indiana and Michigan ever since.
Chicago Fire Department Station 46 in South Chicago lent them a few bunks to sleep in during the first night. The Burns Harbor Fire Department in Chesterton, Ind., put them up for the next night on Tuesday. On Thursday, the four of them made it to St. Joseph and slept in a room at the Silver Beach Hotel.
While it is easy to commit to walk 136 miles, it’s another thing to actually complete the distance.
“I thought we were going to be able to knock out 30 or 40 miles a day, but when you get down to actually walking, it’s an all-day thing,” Williams said. “(For Thursday) it was from 7 a.m. up until 9 p.m. last night. We stopped and talked to people, but it’s tough when you are walking 12-14 hours on your feet.”
To pass the time, Stoltzner said they talked about everything and anything.
“We’ve had some out there conversations about random stuff,” Stoltzner admitted. “Sometimes we talked a lot. Other times we just put our heads down and kept trucking. The best thing that helped us pass the time was the support from others. Everyone was driving by, showing support, and we kept in mind what we were doing this for.”
During their stay in St. Joseph, Stoltzner said someone was kind enough to donate a room for them.
Along the way they received monetary donations toward the project, words of encouragement from veterans, bottles of water and the occasional honk of support.
“The support we received through this walk has been unbelievable,” Stoltzner said. “We already had our sleeping arrangements ready to go, but some people even offered for us to stay with them. I really feel we are completing our mission of raising awareness.”
With the money raised and the end in sight, Stoltzner said the group has discussed doing this again. However, the decision remains up in the air.
“It’s been quite an experience along the way,” Stoltzner said. “We haven’t decided if we will do this again. But we are happy and honored to give back to our heroes who have given us so much.”
To learn more about their cause or to donate to the groups’s effort, go to http://fundraise.woundedwarrior project.org/rtt/Fundraising/team/forthem.
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Aug. 15, 2015)