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Figuring Things Out: Warrior Hike Helping Veterans Through Trips on the Appalachian Trail

  • Army veteran Nathan Buchholz and Air Force veteran Michelle Revoir hang their hiking packs to dry after washing them while staying at the Super 8 Motel in White River Junction. Buchholz and Revior are part of a program called Warrior Hike, a program that provides veterans with the necessary equipment and resources to hike the full length of Appalachian Trail. Valley News photographs — Kristen Zeis

  • Left: Warrior Hike participant and Army veteran Olaf McCreary shares a quiet moment with his 11-year-old German shepherd, Aero, at the White River Junction VFW on Wednesday. Aero completed more than 500 miles of the Appalachian Trail with McCreary, but had to abandon the hike because of health issues.Above: White River Junction VFW club manager Rhonda Wood, of Thetford, speaks with Warrior Hike participant Joel Strait. The local VFW hosted the Warrior Hikers while passing through town on their six-month Appalachian Trial through-hike.

  • Left: Warrior Hike participant and Army veteran Olaf McCreary shares a quiet moment with his 11-year-old German shepherd, Aero, at the White River Junction VFW on Wednesday. Aero completed more than 500 miles of the Appalachian Trail with McCreary, but had to abandon the hike because of health issues.Above: White River Junction VFW club manager Rhonda Wood, of Thetford, speaks with Warrior Hike participant Joel Strait. The local VFW hosted the Warrior Hikers while passing through town on their six-month Appalachian Trial through-hike.

  • White River Junction VFW commander Todd Steadman, second from left, hands out checks offering support to Warrior Hike participants Michelle Revoir, far left, Nathan Buchholz, Nate Bliss, Joel Strait and Olaf McCreary during their stop in town on Wednesday. The post also offered the hikers a spaghetti dinner and drinks. Valley News — Kristen Zeis



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, August 08, 2015
White River Junction — Back in 2012, U.S. Marine combat veteran Sean Gobin mimicked Earl Shaffer’s 1948 Appalachian Trail through-hike, using the long-distance national scenic trail as a therapeutic means to “walk off the war.” Since then, Gobin has been working to help others do the same.

Gobin is founder and executive director of Warrior Hike, a Virginia-based nonprofit in its third year sponsoring annual end-to-end voyages of the AT’s entire 2,185-mile length, from northern Georgia to northern Maine. Gobin, who served two deployments in Iraq from 2003-05 and another in Afghanistan in 2011, says he’s fortunate to have avoided the post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms that have afflicted so many of his comrades — and he credits the six months of wilderness exposure on the AT as a big reason why he did.

“Particularly for combat veterans, it can be a very abrupt transition,” Gobin said in a phone interview Friday from Charlottesville, Va. “You see a lot during combat deployment, and then one day you’re back in ‘normal society.’ If you don’t take the time and space you need and allow yourself to process the experience, you’re at a much greater risk of PTSD. So the idea for Warrior Hike is to get them out in the wilderness for six months with some other veterans and to help each other process what they’ve been through and figure things out.”

Warrior Hike sponsors group expeditions on a half-dozen long distance trails in the U.S., plus outings on the Mississippi River. The AT hike has grown popular quickly, eliciting more than 120 applications prior to this year’s outing and more than 200 already for 2016. The veterans get some comforts along the way in the form of donated gear and supplies from equipment companies. Once a week or so, they’re treated to meals and a night away from the trail by a support organization such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

On Wednesday night, VFW Post 2571 in White River Junction provided transportation for the group from the trail in Norwich to a North Hartland Road motel, then hosted them for drinks and a spaghetti dinner at the post’s lounge and function hall on South Main Street. On Thursday morning, it was another hot meal at a West Lebanon diner before being dropped off back on the trail.

Gobin said he’s had little trouble finding organizations such as the VFW to donate their time and resources, a vital part of the program’s success.

“It’s really been overwhelming, the kind of response we’ve been getting from people who want to help,” he said. “There are two big circles that make it happen. One are the companies who believe in what we’re doing and donate their gear and supplies. The other are the places in the communities along the way who host the veterans and get them off the trail for support once a week. Both of those things really increase the quality of the journey for the veterans.”

This year’s group departed Georgia’s Spinger Mountain on March 16 with 11 members. Two have dropped out on their own accord, while a third, Caitlin Murphy, wasn’t with the group in White River Junction so that she could attend a family funeral in her home state of Maine. Texan Gabriel Golden missed Wednesday afternoon’s socializing at the VFW while being treated at the VA Hospital for symptoms of Lyme disease — becoming the second in the group to experience them since it entered New England. (Air Force veteran Michelle Revoir was given a prescription for Lyme symptoms in Connecticut and has continued hiking with the group.)

Thirty-two-year Army vet Olaf McCreary, of Ohio, hiked the trail with his 11-year-old German Sheppard, Aero, until Aero became afflicted with a spinal injury near Harrisburg, Pa. McCreary retrieved his RV camper in Ohio and has been shadowing the group through the Northeast, offering support while joining it for sections of the trail he believes Aero can handle.

“He’s always liked hiking; this just got be a little much for him, and he ended up getting sick,” McCreary said while sipping a dark beer at the VFW. “A lot of people have enjoyed meeting him. We were a wet, dirty hiker and his wet, dirty dog, but a lot of people still wanted to pet him or give him food.”

Some of the veterans have been struck by the level of “trail magic,” gestures of kindness by strangers both on and off the trail. Whether it’s been coolers full of cold drinks at road junctions or people offering rides into town before being solicited, the acts have helped comfort the soldiers as they transition away from conflict.

Joel Strait, a 33-year-old North Carolinian who fought in Iraq, called the experience “sobering.”

“You get so jaded in the military, it gets to the point where you have a hatred for people, whether it’s the people telling you what to do or (those you’re fighting),” Strait said. “Out here, you don’t really expect people to be as kind as they are, but they really are.”

McCreary called the group “tight and cohesive,” but there are times when its members won’t see each other for days. Nate Mori, of Chucky, Tenn., prefers it that way, calling himself a natural loner.

Gobin doesn’t mind hearing sentiments such as Mori’s. After all, a big part of the mission with Warrior Hike is to allow the veterans to establish their own pace and witness the Appalachian Trail for themselves.

“It’s really by design that they’re able to pick and choose whether they want to be alone or part of a group,” Gobin said. “I feel like that’s one of the big benefits of the program. Some days, they might feel like being by themselves, and other times they might find it comforting to be with other veterans who’ve had similar struggles. Sometimes, they might feel like meeting someone new and interesting who has nothing to do with the military.”

Strait has enjoyed mingling with veterans and non-veterans alike.

“There have definitely been some hippies along the way, some ultra left-wings guys and everyone in between,” he said. “But they’ve mostly been supportive, too. They might not support the war, but they still support you.”

It’s the second AT through hike for Bourne, Mass., native Nathan Bliss, a former Army infantryman who’s spent the last seven years as an outdoor educator with the Appalachian Mountain Club. He called the AT “addictive” — in a good way.

“There are times when you feel miserable, but there’s a lot of reward,” the Johnson State College graduate said. “It puts you in a better place mentally. It clears your head, puts things in perspective and teaches you to live more simply.”

Recently retired command unit chaplain Dennis Newton, 62, said Vermont has been his favorite section of the trail so far.

“(Virginia’s) Grayson Highlands had ponies, which was pretty neat, but this here is just a beautiful area,” said Newton, whose trail nickname is Trail Pilgrim and who maintains a blog at www.traveljournals.com/trailpilgrim. “Some of the sections are steep, but the views when you get to the top are lovely — and then you get to go down.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.