‘I can’t afford to fail’: British Army major takes 1,200-mile barefoot walk for his daughter

The sign Chris Brannigan carries on his shoulders asks a very simple question — ‘How far would you go for your child?’

The British Army major’s shirt is emblazoned with his own personal answer: From Maine to North Carolina. On foot. Barefoot. With a 60-pound backpack.

“The idea of doing this barefoot is that I can’t afford to fail,” Brannigan said as he walked through Milford on Day 21 of his 1,200-mile fundraising walk for his U.K.-based charity, Hope For Hasti.

Brannigan’s daughter Hasti, 9, was born with a rare genetic condition called Cornelia de Lange Syndrome. The disease affects about 1 in every 10,000 births. It typically affects growth, development, learning and behavior. Brannigan hopes to raise £100,000 (about $136,000) toward gene therapy research with his walk. So far he has raised just over half that on the charity’s GofundMe.com page.

“My journey has to be hard because Hasti’s journey is hard,” Brannigan said. “She couldn’t speak until she was 5, couldn’t walk until after she turned 2. She didn’t have a choice. I do. So it’s only fair that I make it difficult for myself.”

Brannigan started his walk at the Jackson Laboratory, a biomedical research institute in Bar Harbor, Maine, on Aug. 31. He plans to continue on his solo trek to Jacksonville, N.C., the home of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune. The Jackson Labs to Jacksonville walk offers the advantage of ending in a place he is passingly familiar with, having visited various U.S. military establishments throughout his own career in the British Army.

The solo journey — with no support van or crew, carrying his food and water, and a change of clothing and one-man tent on his back — is also symbolic of Hasti’s struggles.

“It can be lonely, and a happy ending is far from certain,” Brannigan said. “Most of the time, there is little or no support. Hasti finds so many simple things difficult, so I thought I’d experience some of that difficulty for myself.”

And like his daughter, whose condition will get worse as she ages, Brannigan said his own journey tends to get worse over the course of each 20-mile day on the road.

“The first few miles every day aren’t too bad,” he said shortly after 3 p.m. Tuesday as he paused in front of the Milford Public Library. “But this time of day, it can get to be a struggle.”

As he walks, Brannigan seeks out grassy strips to give his feet a break from the cement sidewalks. He also strategically uses the shade cast by parked cars to allow himself to step onto the cooler asphalt that isn’t baking in the midday sun.

He also pauses periodically to snap selfies to post on the Hope for Hasti Facebook page.

Brannigan noted the stark difference between the beginning of his walk, where he could go all day without seeing a house, then sleep under the stars on the roadside, and the current route through Connecticut.

“Now, it’s a few hundred miles of walking almost constantly in a town,” he said. “Honestly, I was worried that when I got to the more dense areas, I would sort of get lost. But people still notice me. They see the big sign.”

Indeed, in the time it took for him to walk from the library the length of Milford Green, Brannigan is stopped twice by well-wishers, turns down an offer of a cold drink, records a brief video in front of the WW2 monument and answers a media call.

People are noticing.

“You’re going to change lives,” said Terry Powers, a Milford resident who stopped Brannigan in the parking lot of the Citgo gas station.

Powers’s sister was driving along South Broad Street when she saw Brannigan walking. She noticed the sign, did a quick internet search, then told Powers to hurry to the Green.

“I work with children who have special needs,” Powers said. “I’m going to tell my kids about you. We’re going to track your progress.”

Gas station attendant Diane Haynes chokes back tears.

“You’ve got such a great smile, you must be thinking about your daughter right now,” she said. “I bet she can feel what’s happening here.”

As the small group snaps selfies, Brannigan hands out photos of Hasti and rubber cause bracelets with the charity’s name. He also accepts donations from two motorists who were fueling up and noticed the small commotion.

After a few minutes, Brannigan is walking again. He plans to continue along Boston Post Road into Stratford to Barnum Avenue, then stop for the night at the Bridgeport Fire Department Station 6 on Central Avenue. It’s about five more miles, and he optimistically estimated he had about 90 minutes more walking to go.

“Maybe I can make it by 4:30 or 5,” he said. “Earlier in the day I was moving faster.”

Fire departments have actually become something of a hostel system for him in Connecticut. He spent Monday night with the New Haven Fire Department, where they cooked him a steak dinner and sent him on his way with a $2,000 donation.

“Fire departments are great. They’re really good guys. Really fun,” he said. “And they understand what it’s like to have a cause.”