PALO ALTO, Calif. - Every day, John and Cory Preston hike, sometimes training together and sometimes on their own, but they always hike with purpose.
They hike for first responders, veterans, and John's brother Michael.
"Strange to me to still get emotional that…I grew up trying to be like him," said John through tears.
John, like his father and his brothers, is a Marine Corps veteran. He joined at 22, did a tour in Iraq in 2004, and will tell you he came back a different person.
He used music to raise awareness about the mental health struggles of veterans and was on the road in 2016 when he got a call telling him, that his brother Michael, not just a Marine Corps veteran, but a police officer, husband and father had taken his own life.
"This is the guy that was always there, so that's why today is today. That's why we're sitting here because that guy's gone…I have to look around and say, 'Who's going to do that now?' You know, 'who's going to pick up what he held for so long?'" said John.
John picked up what Michael held and honors it today as a recording artist for Sony and as a firefighter for Palo Alto.
In 2019, he decided to hike 625 miles, from Palo Alto to San Diego.
"There’s 22 veteran suicides a day, so let's do 22 miles. That seems like a great plan. Well, I should probably carry a pack. What about a 22-kilo pack? You have 50. That seems perfect. And that was how it all rolled out," said John.
He recorded that journey in January 2020 and almost didn't make it, at one point saying, "I feel like I can't go anymore. I might need to have to take it off my back."
The weight and the miles took their toll and for days, he refused help.
"I had to sit in my worst nightmare every single day of not being able to fix or do anything for him and just watch him struggle through this and go through this…where he was not being able to say that to him and tell him, like 'I can't even bear to watch you take another step because I can see how excruciating it is for you. And there is absolutely nothing that I can do to lift this burden from you. And it's killing me,'" said John's wife Cory.
Cory is a former San Francisco firefighter.
One day, when John finally shared the physical and emotional burden of accepting help, he realized something else.
"Some lady that had seen us on the news was like, why don't you have the pack on your back?", recalled John, "And I'm like, oh, this is everything. I figured I failed already. You know, I failed. We know now. We didn't you know we know now that we're painting this beautiful picture of what asking for help looks like."
This October, he will hike again. But this time he won't try to do it alone.
"I was never done," said John. "This is just finishing something that I started three years ago."
His wife says John first called her about hiking again when, "he was driving home, and he shows up, and he says, what if you walk with me? What if you do this? And immediately I shook my head. I don't think I said anything."
But she says after retiring from the San Francisco Fire Department to stay home with their daughter, she says she had been looking for something.
"Then I was just overwhelmed emotionally. And it was kind of like that tap on the shoulder that 'maybe this is what I've been looking for. Maybe this is what I’m supposed to be doing, maybe this is why I’m here,'" Cory said.
Once again, the hike will be 22 miles a day while carrying a 22-kilo [50 pounds] pack.
But this time they will start in South Carolina.
"We’re starting at Parris Island, where all three of my brothers [and] myself started our careers in the Marine Corps.
John will walk farther; instead of 625 miles, they will hike 700 miles stopping in his hometown in Kentucky.
"It finishes Nov. 11," said John. "So we're actually finishing on Veterans Day. We go through the last town that my brother worked for as a police officer on the last day, and we cross the bridge over into Cincinnati, we were all born."
They will make the journey for their little girl Eleanor who never got a chance to meet her amazing uncle.
Cory said she told Eleanor one night, "This is for you. This is all for you. This is so you can be whoever you want to be and know that you can be whoever you want to be."
They will make it for those who have walked beside them.
The acting captain at John's fire station says, "I know it's close personal to him and close personal, all of us…we're really proud of everything he's doing."
And those who will walk with them.
"We’re getting down on the ground and meeting people that have gone through some of the things," said John." We've gone through, and we're going to affect and change our lives for the best we can.
And they will walk for those who have been lost.
"Everybody was loved by their kids. Great dads, great moms, they were awesome. Somehow, they felt like they couldn't do it together. We want to show everyone they can," John added. "At the end of the day, we chose our people to be with our people…and our people will not like this life if you're not in it. It's not going to be better to be gone."
And so, they train one step at a time, sometimes together, sometimes separately but never ever alone.