Traumatic Injury interrupts, But Doesn’t Diminish Epic Quest Goal
Cross Country Memorial Walk Suspended for 13 Years Poised to Resume
As a reporter for Stars and Stripes, the U.S. military’s independent news source, Kevin Dougherty often found himself in extremely dangerous situations. The now 63-year-old was stationed in Germany and was embedded with U.S. troops to cover conflicts in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. He faced gun and rocket grenade fire, traveled a road a mere hour ahead of a roadside attack in Iraq, and even survived a helicopter crash near Kosovo in 1999.
Dougherty was highly aware of the risks involved with his job. He knew the importance of maintaining a keen awareness of his surroundings and exercising caution. It is a matter of life or death, literally. That sense of caution carried over when he returned to the United States in 2010 to pick up where he had left off on a cross-country walking pilgrimage in memory of a close friend.
Beginning in college, Dougherty had mused with one of his closest friends about a coast-to-coast walking expedition. But when that friend’s life was tragically claimed by cancer in 1989, Dougherty felt compelled to finally make that dream a reality and set about preparing for what had become a memorial journey. Setting out from the coast of Maine in the spring of 1990, he walked all the way to Chicago before November weather forced him to stop until the following year.
His pilgrimage was delayed further when the First Gulf War broke out and Dougherty was offered the chance to work for Stars and Stripes. This temporary position turned into a full-time career, and the relocation to Germany as well as the addition of a wife and family responsibilities pushed the completion of his journey to the back burner. But he never lost his desire to finish the quest. By the spring of 2010 Dougherty had completed preparations and found himself back in the States where he had left off 20 years earlier—on the road from Chicago, walking toward the northern California coast.
Yet, after over 20 trips into war zones overseas and all the risks that came with them, it was a driver asleep at the wheel on a highway in rural Illinois that would have the most profound and devastating impact on Dougherty’s life.
On the afternoon of April 28, 2010, just three weeks into his journey and only a day away from crossing the Mississippi River, Dougherty’s journey came to a tragic halt on Highway 64 just east of Mt. Morris, Illinois. Despite taking the precaution of walking against traffic on the far shoulder of the road, a westbound driver crossed the center line and continued over to the shoulder of the east bound lane at about 55 miles per hour. Dougherty never had a chance to save himself.
Dougherty has no memory of the accident. He was airlifted to OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center in Rockford, Illinois, and placed in an induced coma for two weeks to allow his body to heal from the devastating musculoskeletal injuries to his legs, arm, vertebrae, pelvis, ribs, and head as well as kidney and liver trauma.
Under the care of Marc A. Zussman, MD, an orthopedic trauma surgeon from OrthoIllinois, Dougherty underwent multiple surgeries to install hardware in his legs and arm to piece back together the shattered bones. Dougherty spent weeks confined to a wheelchair (due to the severity of his leg injuries) as his other injuries began to heal. It took another three months under Dr. Zussman’s care and extensive physical therapy before Dougherty was mobile enough to return to his home and family in Germany.
Though he regained the use of his legs, Dougherty lived with the continued impact of that isolated incident on Highway 64. Athletic all his life, his were movements slower, with a barely perceptible irregular gait, and there is lingering pain in his hips. He resumed work for Stars and Stripes as a desk reporter, but he missed the rush and exhilaration that come from being deep in the midst of the military action. However, he knew his inability to react and move quickly could leave his host troops vulnerable in hostile situations.
Post-injury limitations did not keep Dougherty idle. The traumatic injury care he received from Dr. Zussman and the other specialists, along with steady rehabilitation over time, have allowed him to progressively regain an active life. Most importantly, his hope of completing his walking journey never dimmed.
Physical recovery, along with family needs during the past 12 post-accident years, kept renewal of his cross-country trek at bay, but in 2023 finds Dougherty poised to achieve that dream. He is preparing to resume his westward journey this month from the site of the 2010 accident. He anticipates spending more than a year to reach the end of his journey in Northern California.
Life has a habit of throwing challenges and obstacles that can easily squelch dreams and aspirations. But Dougherty’s commitment to his friend’s memory never faded. Though his quest began more than 22 years ago, he remains determined: “It is the journey, not the arrival, that matters”
Kevin Dougherty is now retired and resides with his family near Frankfurt.