Today, a dozen combat vets are “walking off the war,” a phrase made popular by the legendary Earl Shaffer, a World War II vet who was having trouble adjusting to civilian life.
In 1948, Shaffer strapped on a backpack, told his family he was going to walk off the war, and became the first person to hike the entire Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, a trek of 2,185 miles that takes from earliest spring until the chill days of fall.
On March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, 14 more vets began their own joint hike, organized by Warrior Hike in conjunction with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Most were Iraqi/Afghan vets, although one vet had fought in Desert Storm, another in Vietnam and another in World
“Unfortunately, the last two vets had spirits stronger than their bodies, and they had to leave the trail after a few days,” says Sean Gobin, founder of Warrior Hike. Still, the oldest vet out on trail who is braving periodic sleet and snow this spring is 61 years old.
Using about $70,000 of hiking equipment provided by 40 donors, Warrior Hike gives all the vets state-of-the-art camping gear, plus $300 a month to buy food as they go. It also coordinates with vets’ groups and civic groups along the route to host meetings that allow the vets to share their experiences and community dinners that give them time to meet members of the local towns.
The Appalachian Trail; starts at Springer Mountain, Ga., and winds through some pretty rugged mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee. Then the country flattens out some, but it’s still not easy going. By Pennsylvania, hikers pick their way through a huge debris field left by the last glacier. Then New Hampshire and Maine provide more rugged mountain ranges.
“But by that time, you’ve got your body in great shape and honed your hiking skills, so it’s a great place to end up,” says Gobin, who made the hike two years ago.
“As you hike north, you basically follow the spring north, which is very nice,” he says. “The summer heat wave is brutal, particularly amidst the boulders in Pennsylvania, but by September when you get to Maine, the nights are crisp and cool, and it feels really nice.”
Gobin is a veteran of 12 years in the Marine Corps who served in three different combat deployments. He was in the first wave to invade Iraq in 2003, and he came back to drive the insurgents out of Fallajuh two years later. In 2011, he spent the entire year training the military and police forces in Afghanistan.
After deciding it was time to separate from the Marines, Gobin and a buddy began planning a hike over the entire Appalachian Trail in 2012 as a way to raise money to provide specially equipped vehicles for some of the vets at the Walter Reed Medical Center who were recovering from multiple amputations.
It turned out that doing good for others was also good for Gobin.
“Hiking for eight hours a day in nature means that your brain has nothing else to do except process all your past experiences,” he says. “It allows you to come to terms with yourself. And hiking with other vets means you’re with people who know exactly what you’re going through emotionally.”
But Gobin also made the time to visit the towns along the trail route and talk with local vets’ groups. The primary purpose was to solicit donations for the amputees from the local vets, but that mission swiftly began to broaden.
“Those vets were an excellent source of mentorship,” he says. “They told us how they were coping with what they had done. As this progressed, various community groups came out to meet us, and it became a whole parade of community festivities."
“Depending upon your military experience, you tend to lose some of your faith in humanity, so meeting those wonderful people restored that faith,” says Gobin.
By the time the vets reached Mount Katahdin in Maine, the vets had pledges for $50,000, and they used it to buy three handicap-accessible vehicles for patients at Walter Reed. But it was also clear to Gobin that walking off the war was wonderful therapy.
“At the end of the hike, when I realized how much I personally got out of it, I realized that this program had to continue to allow vets to transition back into the civilian world,” he says.
So he founded Warrior Hike, began to beat the bushes for donations, and renewed his ties with the wonderful folks he had met along the trail. For the past two years, Warrior Hike has recruited a dozen or more vets for the hike and provided support and organization for the hikers.
“Instead of being community fund-raisers, we re-designed them to be community outreach opportunities at the end of the day,” Gobin says. "Volunteers drive our vets into town and give them an opportunity shower and do laundry. Then they host a big community dinner where our vets can meet all these incredible people."
“The communities were so excited to do it that they got back to me later and said it was as beneficial for them as it was for the vets,” he adds. “So it’s turning into a win-win situation.”
“People follow the hike like a TV reality show,” he laughs. “I post pictures on a day-by-day basis, so people get to watch this transformation in real time. They’re seeing the vets drop some weight, get a glow in their faces, and begin to laugh again. People almost get addicted to it.”
With the VA struggling to deal with the PTSD/TBI epidemic currently facing too many of today’s veterans, programs like Warrior Hike are helping vets deal with their own problems naturally.