Under blue skies, five U.S. combat veterans picked their way over the rough granite of Katahdin on Sept. 12, to complete their 2,185-mile hike of the Appalachian Trail. As participants of the “Walk off the War” Warrior Hike program, these men chose to embark on the arduous wilderness journey as an alternative form of therapy, a way for them to come to terms with their wartime experiences.
“It gives your mind the time and space it needs to process all of it,” said U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Sean Gobin, Warrior Hike founder. “It’s definitely a process, but at the end, you’re in a good space to start the next chapter of your life.”
In 2012, Gobin returned home after three combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He had long toyed with the idea of hiking the National Scenic Appalachian Trail, a footpath that spans from Georgia to Maine, so he decided to give it a try with fellow Marine Mark Silver.
“Initially, for me, it was just a physical challenge,” Gobin said. “It wasn’t until about two-thirds of the way up the trail that I realized what a profound impact the experience of hiking the trail actually was.”
Gobin certainly isn’t the first soldier to find solace in hiking the Appalachian Trail.
In 1948, Earl Shaffer told a friend he was going to “walk off the war” to reflect on his army experiences and mourn the loss of friends during World War II. Four months later, he became the first person to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail.
“My leaving the Marine Corps so abruptly and coming back from Afghanistan was a very jarring transition mentally to go from the battlefield to back at home,” said Gobin. “I really didn’t have the time and space to process and transition into civilian life.”
About 20 percent of Iraq veterans and 11 percent of Afghanistan veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a recent report from the Department of Veteran Affairs, which lists four symptoms: reliving the event in memory or nightmares, avoiding situations that remind you of the event, negative changes in beliefs and feelings, and feeling keyed up (jittery, always alert or on the lookout for danger).
A research team from Georgia Southern University is studying the therapeutic effects thru-hiking (hiking a long-distance trail from end to end) has on post-traumatic stress disorder. The team has released preliminary findings on how the long term wilderness experience combined with therapy can provide veterans the necessary time needed to recondition their behavioral and emotional responses.
Gobin believes three aspects of hiking the Appalachian Trail contributed to his healing process.
First, the act of hiking nonstop for days on end, without the distraction of media, forced him to process his experiences and come to terms with the past, he said.
Second, hiking with another veteran made it so he wasn’t going through the transition alone.
“And the third thing is the connections you make with people along the way, especially in trail towns,” Gobin said. “It helped you re-establish a basic faith in humanity that you may have lost on the battlefield.”
After completing the trail in 2012, Gobin founded Warrior Hike and the “Walk off the War” program so he could help other veterans experience their own healing thru-hikes.
In 2013, the organization sent its first group of 14 veterans to the Appalachian Trail, providing them with all their equipment and support along the way. The participants, which applied for the program online, came from all over the U.S. and had served in many branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, including the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy.
And this year, Gobin expanded the program to send veteran hikers to two additional trails: the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail and the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail, which both run across the western half of the U.S. from the border of Mexico to Canada.
“We’ve had so much support over the past two years and had a lot of people asking if we were going to send veterans on the other trails, so it just seemed like a natural progression,” Gobin said.
Supporting hikers on all three trails has been challenging, Gobin said, especially because the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail have a reputation for being more challenging and dangerous than the Appalachian Trail.
“On the [Appalachian Trail], everyone knows us now,” Gobin said.
On average, 20 percent of the people who start the Appalachian Trail thru-hike each year are successful in walking the entire trail, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. The terrain is mountainous for its entire length, with an elevation gain and loss equivalent to hike Mount Everest from sea level and back 16 times.
Of the 14 veterans participating in the Warrior Hike Appalachian Trail expedition this year, just five completed the entire trail. The other participants left the trail early because of a variety of difficulties, physical and mental. But that doesn’t mean the hike wasn’t successful for them, Gobin said. While reaching the end is the obvious goal for any thru-hiker, a person doesn’t need to reach the end in order to have a healing, meaningful experience.
“It was very relaxing to get back to the basics, worrying about your basic needs like shelter, water and food, getting back to the simple life,” said Matthew Donnelly, one of the five Warrior Hikers to complete the Appalachian Trail hike this year.
Donnelly, originally from Shohola, Pennsylvania, served in the U.S. Navy and was deployed to the Persian Gulf off the coast of Iraq. His favorite part of the Appalachian Trail was the mountains of New Hampshire and Maine.
“Maine was great; we had a bunch of stops,” Gobin said. “Our big stops were Andover, Monson and Millinocket.”
After the Warrior Hike, veterans finished their climb of Katahdin on Sept. 12, and they led the march at the annual Trails End Festival in downtown Millinocket. They were treated to a barbecue dinner by Cooking with the Troops at the American Legion Post 80.
Next year, Gobin plans to expand the program further and organize a five-month paddling trip down the Mississippi River for veterans whose injuries don’t allow them to hike for hundreds of miles.
To learn about the “Walk off the War” program or donate to the cause, visit warriorhike.org.