The Long Walk: 3 Veterans, 3 Dogs and a 100-Mile Journey to Ground Zero

Michelle Caffrey NJ.com

PHILADELPHIA — It wasn’t easy. When Andrew Einstein returned home after his second deployment overseas as a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, he admits that like many veterans, he struggled to readjust to a civilian life.

But then, Einstein found Gunner.

Andrew Einstein, a Westampton police officer and former Marine, kisses his service dog Gunner, before they walk from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia to One World Trade Center in New York City. Joe Warner  for NJ.com

Andrew Einstein, a Westampton police officer and former Marine, kisses his service dog Gunner, before they walk from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia to One World Trade Center in New York City. Joe Warner for NJ.com

Or, as Einstein tells the story of how the silver lab puppy repeatedly pushed his way to Einstein when he went to match up with a service dog, Gunner found him.

“He saved my life,” said Einstein without hesitation, as he stood with Gunner just feet from The Liberty Bell, not long after the sun rose over the heart of Philadelphia’s historic district. “That’s the best way to put it.”

The powerful influence Gunner has had in helping Einstein, now a Westampton Township police officer, overcome the effects of post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is one of the main reasons he met up with fellow former Marine sergeants and current Philadelphia firefighters Devon Richio and Steven Walls at the historic landmark early Tuesday morning.

After hugging family members goodbye, all three set out on a 100-mile journey to the Freedom Tower in Lower Manhattan, where they’re set to arrive by September 10 and join the FDNY in 9/11 memorial ceremonies.

In an effort to raise funds in memory of their fallen brother Marines — as well as awareness about PTSD and the lifeline service dogs can provide to veterans — Einstein, Richio and Walls, along with Gunner, Richio’s service dog Kyra and Walls’ service dog Ava, will walk about 12 miles a day, staying at firehouses along the way, until they arrive in Staten Island and are escorted into Manhattan on an FDNY fire boat.

“I think we’re realizing it’s bigger than we thought,” said Einstein, adding at least 10 fellow veterans have reached out when they heard about the journey — named The Long Walk — and said they’d be thrilled to join next year.

The swelling interest in the group’s expedition is also apparent when looking at their fundraising efforts as well. A GoFundMe page set up to go hand-in-hand with the walk has already raised $6,465, more than $1,000 over their goal to raise $5,000 in memory Corp. John Thornton of Kilo company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines who was killed in action on Feb. 25, 2005 in Ramadi, Iraq and Staff Sgt. Christopher Diaz, who was killed in action on September 28, 2011 in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan where he was working as a Military Working Dog Handler assigned to a Marine Special Operations Battalion Detachment.

The funds will be split between an art scholarship set up in Thornton’s memory, the Staff Sergeant Diaz Memorial Fund and The Dawgs Project, which promotes and rewards the work of military working dogs.

“We can’t wait to give that money to the families,” said Einstein, adding they picked the starting point and end destination because of what they represent to generations of Americans who have picked up arms for their country.

“They fought for the Liberty Bell, for Freedom,” he said. “We fought for the Twin Towers.”

His parents, Sylvan Einstein and Kathy Shapiro, said at first they were surprised to hear of the veterans’ plans to traverse Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

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