Seeing America, one veteran at a time Man on a tractor raising funds to help our wounded veterans
At the age of 69, you’d think C. Ivan Stoltzfus would like to take it easy for awhile.
After all, he’s taken time off from his work as an auctioneer and real estate broker to do a little traveling. He’s looking forward to seeing America, meeting people and discovering something new each day - but it’s no vacation.
He’s driving around the United States in a restored 1948 “A” John Deere fitted out with the cab of a 1984 Model 359 Peterbilt truck and pulling a 24-foot trailer. He’s only able to travel about 14 miles an hour. He doesn’t miss much - except perhaps the comforts of home - but that pales in comparison to the satisfaction he gets from the conversations he has with veterans as he chugs slowly through one small town to the next.
His charity - “Across America for Wounded Heroes” - is painted on the sides of his trailer, the name spelled out under a silhouette of his tractor.
He made a similar trip in 2014 and raised $140,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project to help fund programs for veterans.
This year, his goal is a million dollars.
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For the most part, he rides alone although there’s room for a passenger in his cab. The dash is covered in photos and mementos he’s been given along the way. Two things are especially precious to him: a teddy bear and a purple heart.
The little stuffed bear sits behind the steering wheel and holds an American flag. “My granddaughter gave it to me to be sure I didn’t get lonely,” he said.
The medal was a gift from a wounded veteran in Pennsylvania who had followed his travels on his website and tracked him down.
Jeremy Jackson was a sharpshooter who was wounded in Iraq. He, his wife and children were standing on the side of the road as Ivan was on his first trip and waved him down. He pulled over to visit with the family and Jeremy handed him a box and said, “I have a gift for you.”
Ivan opened it to find Jeremy’s Purple Heart. Ivan was touched but did not feel he should accept a gift of such significance to the giver. Jeremy changed his mind when he said, “I told my wife I wanted to give this to somebody who’s doing something good for our veterans.”
It now has a permanent spot on the dash and is a reminder of how much his efforts mean to the veterans he meets. “Each morning when I crawl into my cab, that heart is a reminder that someone paid the price so I can be free,” said Ivan.
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He’s got a story for every stop in every town. Some funny, some sad and some will break your heart.
After a brief visit in Bristol last weekend, he headed out on SR 20 toward Calhoun County. Along the way he stopped at a convenience store, where two young boys eyed his unusual tractor and read the message on the trailer.
“They emptied their pockets and gave me their allowance,” he said.
He spends most nights at campgrounds and veterans come up and talk with him. One evening, a man approached him and they sat at a picnic table and talked for an hour. While the veteran appreciated his efforts to raise funds to help provide assistance to victims of post traumatic stress disorder, he told Ivan he was doing something just as important by “listening and letting veterans know they’re not forgotten.”
There have been times when he stopped to get fuel when those around him, after reading about his mission on the trailer, pool their money and pay for him to fill up the tank.
One time he was at a gas station and a man walked up and gave him a nice donation. “He said his son had just come back from Afghanistan, has PTSD and won’t talk about it.”
Another man seemed drawn to the message on the trailer and walked up, placed his hand on the image of the POW flag and started crying.
“I try to listen to them, comfort them and I’ll pray with them if they want me to,” he said.
Some days, though, things get a little wacky. Family, friends and folks he meets along the way follow him on a website map that shows where he’s traveling and even the speed he’s going as he plods along the road.
During his 2014 trip, he had a problem with the flywheel and had to have the tractor loaded on a truck. He realized the truck made good time after hearing from his worried daughter. She was getting calls from concerned friends who saw that his website showed his tractor-trailer rig was traveling 60 mph. They thought it was racing down a hill, out of control. Turns out his tractor’s GPS tracking system continued to operate as the truck brought it in to a repair shop.
Sometimes his visitors aren’t even veterans, just fellow antique tractor enthusiasts. He keeps a little yellow scooter he calls “Smiley” on the back of the trailer so he can make quick trips when he’s settled in at a campsite. He was surprised one day to get a visit from a group of folks who traveled 150 miles to visit him - all on their scooters. “Of course, I had to get pictures of Smiley among all his cousin scooters,” he said.
Occasionally, he finds a message along the roadway. On his 2014 trip, he was in Indiana, riding alone and looking at the scenery. “I see a John Deere B in the front yard. No one is around but there is a sign saying, ‘Go Ivan.’” It made him tear up.
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He can’t be sure if he’ll reach his million dollar goal but he certainly marks another personal triumph each time he meets another veteran. “I feel it is such a privilege to, in a small way, be able to have these heart-to-heart talks and let them know they are not forgotten,” he said.
You can follow Ivan’s travels at www.HelpAmericanHeroes.org; he also has a facebook page, AcrossAmericaForWoundedHeroes. A book about his 2014 travels can be found on Amazon.com. Look for “A Dream To Reality: Changing Lives One Mile At A Time” by C. Ivan Stoltzfus.