When Brian Andries was a student, the three-hour drive from his home near Chicago to the campus of Eastern Illinois University probably often seemed like it would never end.
Think of how long those 165 miles must seem now that he's making the trip on foot.
Andries, a 2009 EIU graduate and Iraq War veteran, is marking the end of his four-year U.S. Army commitment by walking from his hometown back to EIU. To make the most of the experience, he is raising money for the USO of Illinois, a branch of the national nonprofit organization that has long been known for its support of U.S. troops.
His journey, which he calls "165 Miles for USO of Illinois," began Saturday, April 20, in Oswego. Plans call for the last leg of the trip to take place on Friday, April 26, when he'll leave Tuscola en route to EIU's Old Main -- "the definitive 'welcome to Eastern' symbol" -- for an estimated 6 p.m. arrival.
Donors can contribute online at http://www.gofundme.com/walkforuso. Four different donation levels each offers its own rewards. For example, a $20 gift will earn the donor a photo/video bundle from the walk. The top level, $100, entitles the donor to several perks, including an original song written and recorded by the musically inclined Andries -- and the donor can name the subject.
Capt. Andries was already in shape from his Army career -- in fact, he was the fastest runner in his infantry company. He'd just returned from the National Training Center in Ft. Irwin in mid-March when he focused his fitness regimen for the walking-intensive trip. Training included backpacking at least once a week; lots of running; weightlifting; and hundreds of step-ups, simulating walking up steps. The training culminated with 900 step-ups while carrying a 50-lb. backpack.
The trip would sound daunting to most, but for a veteran who served a year in Iraq as both an infantry and engineer platoon leader, conducting partnered patrols with Iraqi forces and route clearance missions, it's relatively easy. Plus, Andries is happy that this trip will include gear that is more comfortable than Army-issued backpacks and boots.
Andries will soon move to Los Angeles and remain in the Army Reserve as a public affairs officer specializing in broadcast management. For civilian employment, Andries plans to become a personal trainer, as well as pursue a career in music and acting.
"This is really the only opportunity when I could do this," Andries said of the six-week stint between his Army enlistment and the beginning of his civilian employment.
Because the EIU ROTC was such a defining force in the life of Andries and his older brother Tim, Andries wanted to return to its headquarters in Klehm Hall for a visit while he had the opportunity.
"What would be better than going back to where my Army career started?" Andries said.
As a communications major who worked at WEIU, he also hopes to stop in to say hello to his old bosses in the Hit-Mix radio studio.
Voted the No. 1 Bachelor of Eastern Illinois University in 2007, Andries' personal homecoming will also likely include stops at some of his favorite spots in town.
"A bunch of my friends that I met throughout my years at Eastern are coming down for a pseudo reunion," Andries said.
A friend from the Chicago suburbs will bring him a bag of clothes Friday and then drive him back home when the adventure ends Sunday. It's safe to say the return trip will seem a little faster.
Interview with Hit-Mix 88.9
Brian called in for a phone interview with Rob Calhoun of Hit-Mix 88.9 midway through his journey. You can listen below!