The U.S. Army taught Sackets Harbor resident Kenneth J. Mintz to be bound to duty and focus on the mission.
On June 30, he retired from service as a colonel after 34 years. He was an infantryman, with nine years stationed at Fort Drum. He participated in four deployments – three in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. As a battalion commander in Afghanistan, his unit lost 14 soldiers in a year of combat in Kandahar province.
But he lost more comrades to the suicides of veterans than in combat. Despite all the grief, he misses the life of the army and his camaraderie. He explained that in some ways he believed his desire was a “curse”.
“Maybe I’ll never be this good again, but I can still go ahead and do great things,” he said.
So on April 1, Mr. Mintz, 53, arrived at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, for his last big deed: walking 3,000 miles across the United States in support of three causes close to his heart. Tuesday was day 21 (with days off) of his Kenny Walks Across America benefit. He was reached by The Times on his cell phone in the early afternoon as he was driving around Ohio – today’s destination was Cambridge. It was his first full day in the state.
It takes the approximately 7 month journey one step at a time.
“For me, life is ahead of us and life is for living,” he said. “And I don’t really want to look back. I want to look forward. The journey here is one of them. Obviously, there will also be a lot of self-discovery that will come out of it. I don’t really know what will happen. But it’s been pretty amazing so far.
The wandering spirit came early to Mr. Mintz. He was 4 when his mother, then 23, decided to start a new life in California. His father, he explained, was irrelevant. With no money or belongings, she drove from their home in Alexandria, Virginia to San Diego. Without a college degree, but with a great work ethic, her mother got a job as a receptionist for a defense contractor. He said after a few years she ran the business and eventually co-founded a new company. That, for Mr. Mintz, is the encapsulated American dream.
“That’s what inspired it,” Mr. Mintz said of his walk. “This journey that she took, and the idea that she went out and made a new life for herself and me, with really nothing.”
This trip particularly resonated with him as he cared for his mother as she was dying of pancreatic cancer. She passed away in March 2020 after a five-year battle with the disease. Mr. Mintz’s “everyday confidant and mentor” has been lost.
One of the three causes Mr. Mintz raises funds for is the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. On Saturday, he plans to participate in a Purple Stride benefit walk in Columbus, Ohio. He made special preparations for Monday’s march in the area of appearances.
“My mom was a huge supporter,” he said. “I figured she wouldn’t be really happy that I had a big old beard to this thing. So I decided to shave it off and mix it up a bit.
Mr. Mintz is a graduate of West Point Military Academy, which recruited him from a Southern California high school in part because of his football prowess. The Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund, another cause he walks for, started as a small group effort to help the family of a schoolmate who died in 1986 at West Point. It turned into a mission to help as many military families as possible.
According to its website, the Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund was established in 2014 “to give back to those who have given — especially those who have given their all, like Johnny Mac…symbolic of all who have served and sacrificed.”
Since 2014, the fund has awarded $25 million in scholarships to veterans and military family members. There are 3,500 Johnny Mac Scholars attending schools in the United States
Mr. Mintz’s third cause is Operation Resiliency, which focuses on the mental health and well-being of veterans to prevent suicide and improve the overall quality of life for them and their families.
Mr. Mintz said Tuesday that he had not checked the total funds raised with Kenny Walks Across America for a few days, but at that time it was about $20,000.
“It’s very encouraging for me,” he said.
On his journey west, Mr. Mintz finds personal encouragement and motivation in JRR Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” fantasy novels and Peter R. Jackson’s related films.
“Obviously a big part of the story is the journey they’re on,” he said. “It is a difficult mission entrusted to them. I think human beings in particular feel an affinity for this idea of travel and challenge, where you set off to encounter the unknown. I’ve always liked the metaphor of a journey.
He recalled a particular scene from the third film/novel, when the Hobbits return to Middle-earth after saving it from destruction. In a tavern, they reflect on their bonds of friendship. And, as they survey their community, they realize they will never fit in the way they did before, being irrevocably changed by their struggles. When Mr. Mintz watches the scene, he also feels like “a stranger among Hobbits”.
But as he walks these days on his own adventure, strangers have become friends. Its traced path passes mainly through rural areas and small towns.
“People have been very friendly to me overall, especially when I first came to western Pennsylvania,” he said. “People would buy me meals and hotel rooms and wait for me on the side of the road as I walked to greet me because they had heard of me.”
Because of a “friend of a friend of a friend” who heard about Kenny’s Walk Across America, he is backed up by a van, allowing Mr. Mintz to keep a light personal load while he walk. The van drivers are willing to shuttle forward as a staging point on Mr. Mintz’s march west.
“Once in a while I have to find people to help shuttle the van around — friends walking with me and things like that,” Mr. Mintz said. “So far this has been the exception, not the rule. This week I have a driver all week. If I need him, I call him and he comes to me. That’s kind of how it works.
Mr. Mintz has three daughters and a son, all in their twenties.
“I think they expect me to do something like that and it doesn’t surprise them much,” he said. “It’s like, ‘So daddy’s gonna walk across America.’ They are very jaded about it.
But they, and others, may have questions, like how will Mr. Mintz, at the end of his walk, get back to his home in Sackets Harbor?
“I’ll probably just fly,” he said. “But who knows what I will do. I have seven months to figure this out.
n WHAT: Kenny walks across America.
n OBJECTIVE: Kenneth J. Mintz, Army veteran and Sackets Harbor resident, crosses the United States from Washington, DC to Swami’s Beach, Encinitas, California, to raise funds for three nonprofit organizations: the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, Operation Resiliency and the Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund.
n TO DONATE: Visit Mr. Mintz’s website at wdt.me/kenwalkbenefits. People can also donate at www.gofundme.com/f/kenny-walks-across-america.
n NOTE: Mr. Mintz’s Facebook page has links to his route, maps and commentary along the way, posted daily.