By Alyson Browett, events coordinator with Warrior Hike
Warrior Hiker Rob Carmel makes his way across the winding boardwalks over the wetlands of New York.
In 1948, World War II Army veteran Earl Shaffer started walking north from the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. Before leaving, he told a friend he was going to work out the sights, sounds, and losses of the war, essentially to “walk off the war.” Four months later, Shaffer became the first person to hike the entire length of the A.T. from Georgia to Maine.
Since 2001, more than 2.5 million veterans have returned home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, in today’s age of modern transportation, military personnel can find themselves home within a few days of serving in a combat zone, leaving many no time to transition from their experiences. In addition, up to 20% of veterans struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), or other mental health diagnoses.
In 2012, after returning home from three combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, former Marine Captain Sean Gobin hiked all 2,185 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Under the name Warrior Hike, Gobin and his hiking partner stopped about every week in trail towns, visiting different veterans organizations to raise money for adaptive vehicles for wounded veterans. But something else happened: Sean recognized the therapeutic effects of long-distance hiking on himself.
Warrior Hiker Matt Donnelly takes in the view atop Rocky Bald in North Carolina.
After completing his hike (often referred to as the “thru-hike), Gobin created the Warrior Hike “Walk Off The War” Program, which is designed to support veterans transitioning from their military service by thru-hiking America’s National Scenic Trails. Warrior Hike has partnered with the federal and nonprofit organizations that manage the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Pacific Crest Trail to create the “Walk Off The War” Program.
Healing Power Of Hiking
During a six-month, 2,000-plus mile journey along a National Scenic Trail, veterans have the opportunity to decompress from their military service and come to terms with their wartime experiences, while learning to use the outdoors as an alternative form of therapy. Hiking with the Warrior Hike “Walk Off The War” Program allows veterans to experience their journey and the transition process with the camaraderie of other veterans. Interaction with members of trail town veterans organizations and local communities facilitates the Warrior Hikers’ reintegration into society, restores their faith in humanity, and builds a network of life-long friendships and relationships.
Sharon “MamaGoose” Smith, who served as an Air Force medic, said after she completed her thru-hike of the A.T. in 2013 with Warrior Hike, “I have entered a whole new realm as I have been embraced by this hiking family. We would not have had this opportunity, none of us, to go out there and experience our life in nature and spend time with this hiking family, had it not been for the Warrior Hike program. Warrior Hike allowed us to go use nature as a vehicle for healing. I am very honored to have been a part of it. Warrior Hike made 14 people better. It was an amazing healing opportunity for us all.”
The 2013 Warrior Hikers participate in the Trails End Festival in Millinocket, Maine, after completing their hike.
Rob Carmel, who also hiked with the program in 2013 after retiring from the Army, said, “While in nature, I’ve realized that there is also good and bad, ups and downs, like our experience in the military, like the trail experience. Everything is not like a smooth flat surface. You learn to come to terms with the rocks and the roots; everything comes together. Warrior Hike gave us a focus – it kept us on a track and gave us a purpose. Upon summiting [Mt. Katahdin in Maine], no words can express the relief, the joy, the feeling of accomplishment, knowing that I did my best and was able to hike the whole trail.”
This year, researchers from Georgia Southern University will measure the benefits of the “Walk Off The War” Program to evaluate how a long-term wilderness experience affects the well-being of combat veterans. The goal of this research is to demonstrate that long-distance hiking can be used as an effective therapy to help veterans cope with PTSD.
In 2014, Warrior Hike is supporting 26 combat veterans on thru-hikes of more than 2,000 miles. The A.T. Warrior Hike team of 14 veterans began its journey northward from Georgia on March 17. On April 12, two teams of six veterans will begin their journeys on the Continental Divide Trail from Hachita, NM, and the Pacific Crest Trail from Campo, CA. Warrior Hike Executive Director Sean Gobin said, “We are pleased to expand this opportunity through the help and support of our sponsor community, which includes a wide array of federal and local organizations, corporations, and individuals.”
In the future, Warrior Hike hopes to continue to expand the number of participating veterans and broaden its activities to include long-distance paddling and biking expeditions. To learn more about the program or to make a donation, visit http://www.WarriorHike.com.
Alyson Browett is a freelance editor and writer specializing in global health and development policy. As a volunteer, she serves as the Events Coordinator for Warrior Hike and the Appalachian Trail Ambassador for Front Royal/Warren County, Virginia. When not by the computer, Alyson can be found in the woods.