Known as “the Walking Man of Murphys,” 71-year-old Vietnam veteran Ric Ryan celebrates nine years of walking to raise awareness and funds for wounded veterans. To date he has walked enough miles to traverse back and forth across the United States several times and has raised approximately $110,000 for University of California, Los Angeles’ Operation Mend, which provides advanced medical and surgical treatment for wounded veterans.
“I will walk for veterans until I die or until I can’t walk anymore,” said Ryan.
He enlisted in the United States Marine Corps on his 18th birthday.
“I cut school, went to the recruiting office and enlisted,” he recalls with great clarity. “When I got home my mom wanted to know why I was home so early, I told her I had enlisted. She told me I couldn’t without her signature. I told her, ‘It’s my birthday, Mom,’” he said softly with the memory of that day still fresh in his mind.
“The Marine Corps saved my life,” Ryan declared.
Though it may have kept him on a path with fewer dark alleys than where he was headed as a self-proclaimed “teenage punk,” the Marines also provided him with a front row seat in the jungles of Vietnam at the height of the Vietnam War.
Ryan was sent to Vietnam in 1966 on a tour that lasted 13 months and 15 days. Less than half of his unit made it home alive.
Ryan’s military occupational specialty, known more commonly as his MOS, was a combat engineer.
“We were supposed to build roads,” said Ryan. “We didn’t get to build many; we were in too many fights.”
After four years, one month and 23 days in the Marines, Ryan was a civilian. He worked as an ironworker during the day and at a pizza parlor in the evening.
It was at the pizza parlor that he says the best thing since the Marine Corps happened to him.
“I met my wife working there,” he smiled.
In October 2018, the couple celebrates 50 years together.
The decision to walk for veterans came when Ryan, already on a healthier path and incorporating walking into his daily routine, heard about Operation Mend and learned of what the nonprofit does for veterans, some of whom are injured beyond recognition. He wanted to help.
Ryan began to count the waves he received as he walked, and deposited a quarter of his own money for each wave in a bank at home. Soon people caught wind of what he was doing and began waving en mass.
Living on Social Security and his pension, Ryan would sometimes find himself strapped at the end of the month, “but I would make up for it from the next check that rolled in.”
Soon people stopped him as he walked and handed him donations from $20 to $100. Ryan claims one local businessman sends him a check each year for $5,000 on the man’s birthday: “It’s a birthday present to himself, but it benefits the veterans.”
In 2014, Ryan was thrust into the national spotlight as he marched in the Veterans Day Parade in New York City to represent Calaveras County with veterans who had received medical assistance from Operation Mend.
“One veteran was so burned, his own children couldn’t recognize him,” Ryan said, weeping. “Operation Mend fixed him up and he’s doing real great now.”
During his years on the road Ryan has had two knee surgeries and one hip surgery. Though they slowed him down a little bit, he surprised his doctors with how quickly he was back to walking.
“I have aches and pains, but I walk through it.”
Ryan says his favorite part of his daily walks is his prayer time. Each morning Ryan stops along a small stretch of Highway 4 that overlooks a vineyard and prays.
“I pray every day at the same spot; it’s very important to me to talk to the man upstairs.”
He begins each prayer with, “The Walking Man is here, Lord,” and finishes with a heartfelt thank you for allowing him one more day to serve not only his Lord, but veterans, too.
On a lighter note, he insists he continues to walk because that’s the only time he can sing.
“I can’t sing, but when I walk, I think I can,” jokes Ryan.
He can be found walking early in the morning through the downtown streets of Murphys with his service dog, El Toro (Ryan’s first duty station), or along Highway 4, belting out the lyrics to some of his favorite songs from the Righteous Brothers to Alan Jackson, though he admits his favorite song is “She’s Like the Wind” by Patrick Swayze.
People often stop him as he walks and give him donations, telling him stories of their fathers or brothers who served in Vietnam or simply wanting to help veterans.
“When people hand me a donation and tell me their story, I often have tears in my eyes. It makes me feel so good. People here in our community are so dedicated to our veterans.”
If you would like to help Ryan, mail a check made out to Operation Mend to P.O. Box 1674, Murphys, CA 95247.
Operation Mend is a joint UCLA Medical Center and Brooke Army Medical Center program that picks up where the military does not provide additional care that can help soldiers recover from the wounds of war. Among other things, the charity offers reconstructive facial surgery for soldiers burned by encounters with roadside bombs during recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For more information, visit operationmend.ucla.edu.