Thursday marked the eighth anniversary since Ric Ryan began his trek as the Walking Man of Murphys.
In that time, the Vietnam veteran has walked 6,901 miles and raised more than $52,000 for Operation Mend, which provides specialty medical and psychological health care to wounded military service members and their families.
But Ryan’s journey began long before he took his first steps for Operation Mend.
He grew up in Seattle and had a difficult relationship with his mother, who was a single parent.
One day he got mad and took a walk.
He called her three days later from Superior, Montana, and told her he’d see her when school started back up.
Ryan started doing it every summer. “I would leave as soon as school was out,” he said.
At least, until his 18th birthday. He skipped school that March day to join the Marine Corps.
“The Marine Corps was my first family. It saved me,” Ryan said.
He served from 1964 to 1968 and was in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967.
After the military, Ryan was an ironworker in San Carlos by day and served beer at a pizza parlor at night.
That’s where he met his wife of 46 years, Joanne.
They have three children and eight grandchildren, with another due in about nine days.
Service seems to run in the family. His son, Sean Ryan, recently retired after 23 years in the Coast Guard.
“I am a firm believer that everyone in this life should be giving,” Ryan said.
And he gives what he can. Ryan donates 25 cents for each person who waves at him while he walks his 8-mile round trip route between Murphys and Vallecito.
Ryan heard about Operation Mend in 2008.
“He is so passionate about our wounded warriors and their families,” said Melanie Gideon, program director of UCLA Health Operation Mend. “He is Superman to us. We love him so much. He is the best person to have on your side and part of your team.”
Operation Mend started in 2007. Through the University of California, Los Angeles, the organization offers free medical and psychological care to veterans who have served after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Healing requires family and support to get you back on your feet,” Gideon said. “We’re open to all branches of service, and we want to help anyone who needs it.”
Operation Mend has served more than 200 veterans and 400 family members, providing more than 400 surgeries and 3,000 medical appointments at UCLA. The organization has also provided about 3,000 flights and 9,000 hotel stays for patients.
The $52,000 raised by Ryan has helped cover the costs of surgery and travel, including seeing sights in the Los Angeles area.
“They’ll take the kids to places like Disneyland,” Ryan said.
“His funds allow us to focus on our mission, which is providing the best care we can for the people who need it most,” Gideon said.
On Thursday, Ryan wore a neon reflective vest stating he’s a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 391.
He also wore a ball cap, carried a walking stick and belted out the tunes of the Righteous Brothers, Charlie Daniels and Alan Jackson.
“I sing my songs out loud so everybody can hear me,” Ryan said. “I’ve been told by numerous people that I don’t have to worry about quittin’ my day job.”
He joked that sometimes neighborhood dogs join in.
But the singing takes his mind off the walking, which he said enables him to go farther than he would otherwise.
Over the years, Ryan has had two knee replacements, a hip replacement and shoulder surgery.
He tries to walk as much as he can, both to benefit Operation Mend and as his own personal brand of therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Walking has helped me considerably with my PTSD,” he said.
He’ll walk rain or shine. And each day along his route he turns off his music and has a few words with God.
“The world’s having a hell of time right now, but here in the Mother Lode everything’s cool,” he said. “And the people of this community have been so good to me.”
Ryan told the story of a recent donation. A school bus driver pulled over, ran across the road and handed him a check for Operation Mend.
It’s not uncommon. Ryan raised $4,000 at a speaking engagement earlier this year in Murphys. One check alone was for $2,500.
And Ryan gets donations from people he’s never of, in places like Massachusetts and Arizona, who have somehow heard of him.
He sends an average of $300 to $400 a month to Operation Mend.
“I am not a rich man by any stretch, but we give what we can,” he said.