On Saturday, May 10, two Colorado cowboys ambled into Marlboro County on horseback, looking for a place to rest their horses and themselves for the night.
They found it with Keith and Amber Hughes outside Clio. "We put the horses up, fed them Breeden Grocery ribeyes and then cooked them breakfast Sunday morning," said Keith.
It was just one of many stops that Matt Littrell and Raymond Avery will make over the next 8-9 months, as they ride cross-country in an attempt to help veterans.
They are raising money and awareness for the Semper Fi Fund, a nationwide non-profit organization that helps injured and ill service members recover and return to civilian life.
"There are a lot of vets out there that need a lot of help and are not getting the help they need," said Littrell, a veteran himself who served from 2001 to 2005 as a Marine infantryman and endured two tours of duty as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
He readily admits that when he came home, he suffered - and still sometimes suffers - the consequences. "I did two tours in Iraq, and there are still days when I'm over there," he said.
In his darkest hours, he even contemplated suicide. And he's not alone. Statistics show there are 22 veteran suicides each day, but Littrell suspects the number is actually much higher because less than half of all states are required to record and report veteran suicides.
"The number is probably closer to 50 or 70 per day," he said. "That's unacceptable."
His goal is to raise $7 million over the course of his trip. It's "a crazy goal," he concedes, but it's no more than veterans deserve.
Just as important as the money he can raise, is the opportunity to shed light on the problem. And perhaps most important of all, he wants to let veterans know someone is championing their cause.
"Vets will realize they're not alone. We're still here, we're still fighting for them, we haven't forgotten them. A lot of times they come home and they're all alone," he said.
Littrell chose to make his trek on horseback because, for him, it was his work with horses that helped him find the inner peace he needed to assimilate back into civilian life.
A farrier by trade, he said he had to learn how to relax around the horses because they could sense tension and would react negatively.
"Horses play a huge part in the equation for me," he said. "Horses taught me how to just come down, and stay there. They were vital to my healing process and carried me through the worst times I've had. Now they are carrying me across the country."
From Elbert, CO, Littrell plans to travel coast to coast, Marine base to Marine base. He and Avery, a family friend, left out of Surf City, NC, near Camp Lejeune, on May 1 and intend to ride all the way to Camp Pendleton, CA - 2,700 miles in all. Littrell expects it will take 8-9 months, as they plan to travel only about 20 miles per day to give their horses ample time to rest.
Littrel's horse is a mustang named Crow who was born wild in Wyoming. Avery rides a quarterhorse mare named Tequila Sheila, and their pack horse is a Rocky Mountain gaited horse named Roy.
As for their accommodations along the way, they are depending on word of mouth and the kindness of strangers, like the Hughes.
Amber had been following their effort on Facebook when Keith got a call from a friend in Tabor City, NC. Littrell and Avery had stayed with him and were heading the Hughes' way, looking for a place to stop for the night. They immediately said yes. Then, learning that they would be heading toward Cheraw when they left Clio, Amber called a friend there and arranged their next stop.
"It's working out exceptionally well," said Littrell. "This is my first time in the south, and people have blown me away with their generosity and kindness. It's been amazing."
The Hughes had set up their camper for the travelers, but Littrell and Avery opted instead to sleep on the ground.
"That's part of the deal," Littrell said. "This isn't a pleasure cruise. It's supposed to be hard because the guys we're trying to help are going through hard times."
He calls his journey "The Long Trail Home" and says it is a metaphor for what veterans go through each and every day.
"It's a hard journey making the transition back to civilian life. There are going to be people to help along the way, there are going to be problems that come up that you have to deal with," he said. "It's a long trail."
To follow their journey, visit facebook.com/Thelongtrailhome. To donate, visit fundraising.semperfifund.org/fundraise?fcid=249300