Marine, service dog to hike Appalachian Trail to raise veteran suicide awareness

Hometown Heroes

OSHKOSH, Wis. (WFRV) Retired marine Tristan Retzlaff has been diagnosed with major depressive disorder, anxiety, ADHD, and was just released from the VA hospital last year.

That’s when his four-legged friend Zoey turned his life around.

“She’s just goofy and silly at times,” Retzlaff said. “She cracks me up sometimes because she can be very derpy.”

Don’t let the goofiness fool you. The 2-year-old Rottweiler service dog is Tristan’s right hand girl.

“Zoey is a medical device,” he said. “She is the best prescription ever written for me.”

Tristan enlisted with the Marines in 1990 and was part of an infantry unit, and it took a toll on his mental and physical health.

“You don’t talk about being depressed or anxiety or any of that stuff because the mentality is you gotta suck it up,” he said.

Battling the effects of his service, things got worse for Tristan years later.

“I went through losing my mother in a car accident. My brother died in a diabetic coma. Then in January 2006, my daughter Bella died from a sudden illness. In that time I also was repeatedly homeless. So all of this just kind of piled on and piled on and piled on,” he said.

On top of his dad passing in 2007 and going through a divorce, Tristan felt down and out.

“A lot of times before, I didn’t even look forward to waking up. I didn’t want to wake up,” he explained.

That was until the energetic, kiss-giving, playful, not-so-little Zoey was introduced to him.

“I just know that she makes it easier for me to make it through the day,” Tristan said. “I keep wanting to gush over her because of how much she has done for me and my life.”

Healing4Heroes – a non profit based in Georgia – provides service dogs like Zoey to veterans like Tristan who are battling traumatic symptoms due to their military service.

“She’s my wheelchair basically for my life,” he said.

Now, Tristan is on a mission to help other veterans like himself from taking their lives.

“A Jarhead’s Journey is about trying to connect veterans to service dogs to hopefully help them be in a better place and not commit suicide,” he explained.

The journey begins February 1st. Tristan and Zoey are hiking all 2,193 miles of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine to raise money and awareness for veteran suicide, and the benefits of service dogs.

“If they see what I’ve been able to do because of Zoey, hopefully it gives them the ability to reach out and ask for help,” said Tristan.

Tristan and Zoey plan to hike about 10 miles everyday and complete the mission in about eight months. They need your help with food and supplies for the trip.

For more information on how you can help, click here to visit the Jarhead’s Journey website. Tristan can be contacted at or at (920) 858-3326.

You can also follow Tristan and Zoey on the following platforms by clicking the links below:

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