On The Appalachian Trail, Combat Veterans Learn To Let Things Go

Oct 6, 2016
Originally published on October 6, 2016 4:06 pm

World War II veteran Earl Shaffer is believed to be the first American to walk the Appalachian Trail in one season, and his diary details the 124-day south-to-north trek. Back in 1948 Shaffer said he wanted to "walk the Army out of his system." Some newer war veterans have the same idea, and NPR tagged along as they finished the 2,100-mile trek.

Marine Corps veteran Sean Gobin stands at the edge of the plateau on Mount Katahdin in Maine. After three combat deployments he decided to hike the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail as a way to transition to civilian life. The healing effects of the six-month journey inspired him to start a nonprofit, Warrior Expeditions, which sends vets on long distance wilderness trips across the country.

A few of the hikers sleep-in past dawn at the base of Mount Katahdin, where the trail ends. "My deployments were tough, but this is tough on so many other levels," says Marine Corps veteran Daniel Dean, shown here curled up in his blue sleeping bag. "Especially in you don't have to do it. If you walked away at any point, there's gonna be no repercussion except for on yourself."

Dean climbs over a pink granite boulder on his way up Mount Katahdin. The trail stretches from Georgia to Maine, and usually takes about six months to complete.

(Left) Cody Yates did 20 years in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. Before he was even formally retired this spring he started hiking the Appalachian Trail, and he says the trip has made a gradual re-entry to civilian life. "I've had a few friends who've died over in Afghanistan. You'll never completely get over that," Yates says. "You'll be hiking along and all of a sudden your mind just goes off ... whether you want to or not, your mind says, OK, we're going to work through that issue." (Right) Joshua Bridger deployed twice to Iraq and wants the outdoors to be a big part of his life going forward. "My body's tired, but my mind is already thinking about the next adventure," he says.

Dean (left) and Gobin hike up the last few miles of the trail on Mount Katahdin in Maine. The Warrior Hikers are supported by veterans organizations. "Meeting all of these other veterans and communities along the way that opened up their homes to us during the hike, that framed my thinking that not all people are bad, and I don't have to isolate myself," Gobin says.

(From left) Combat veterans Cody Yates, Joshua Bridger, Diana Brown and Daniel Dean at the end of the Appalachian trail, six months after they set out from Springer Mountain in Georgia. Brown, who did four combat deployments with the Air National Guard, says the trail helped her realize what was important and what heavy things she should just stop carrying around. "I just had to let them go," she says. "You know there's no fixing it. You don't have to carry 'em. Let 'em go."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Appalachian Trail stretches 2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine. And people who do the whole trek nonstop are called through-hikers. The first-ever through-hiker's believed to be Earl Shaffer, a World War II veteran. Back in 1948, he said he wanted to walk the Army out of his system. Some recent war veterans had the same idea. And NPR's Quil Lawrence shared some of the journey with them.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Through-hikers finish the trail in the last days of summer. The leaves in northern Maine are just about to turn, and the nights are just above freezing.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

LAWRENCE: I caught up with Sean Gobin as he walked this last rugged leg of the trail.

SEAN GOBIN: So in 2011, I decided to get out of the Marines and, you know, I knew I was struggling and needed a life change.

LAWRENCE: After three combat tours, Gobin says he was angry too much. He didn't trust people. Plus, he'd never really lived as an adult outside the military. He needed a transition.

GOBIN: So I convinced a buddy of mine that I was deployed with in Afghanistan with. We got out in the spring of 2012, and we drove out of the back gate at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and drove straight to Georgia, went to Springer Mountain and started hiking.

LAWRENCE: Springer Mountain is the start of the trail in Georgia. By somewhere around Virginia, he thought he'd found a formula for getting over the war.

GOBIN: Having the time and space out in nature to process and decompress everything you've gone through - the second thing was to do it with other combat veterans who have gone through the same thing you have and be essentially a mini support group that you can lean on while you do this journey. And then the third thing was meeting all of these other veterans and communities along the way that open up their homes to us during the hike. You know, that framed my thinking that not all people are bad and that I don't have to isolate myself.

LAWRENCE: Gobin founded a nonprofit called Warrior Expeditions. It sponsors dozens of combat vets each year to walk the Pacific Crest, the Continental Divide and the Appalachian Trail. Each year, Gobin joins the hikers around the camp fire in Maine next to a bubbling stream at the base of Mount Katahdin, where the Appalachian Trail ends.

DANIEL DEAN: Hey, I'm Daniel Dean, Marine sniper, hiking the Appalachian Trail with Warrior Hike. And this is the night before we summit Katahdin, the mountain we've been looking forward for 2,000 miles.

LAWRENCE: Dean is one of 10 vets sponsored on the trail this year. Only four are finishing it.

DEAN: My deployments were tough, but this was tough in so many other levels, especially in you don't have to do it. You don't have to be out here. If you walked away at any point, there's not going to be no repercussions except for on yourself.

LAWRENCE: Dean is muscular, with a Grizzly Adams beard. Next to him around the fire is Diana Brown. She did 27 years in the Air National Guard, with four combat deployments.

DIANA BROWN: When I got out, my husband was diagnosed with cancer shortly after that - stage 4 cancer. So I took care of him until he passed away in 2010.

LAWRENCE: How long you guys been married?

BROWN: Twenty years.

LAWRENCE: She finished raising their three children and then finally had time to think about some of the things weighing her down.

BROWN: The death of my husband and my retirement that I didn't really want to happen - those things were kind of intertwined. And I just had to let them go. You know, there's no fixing it. There's no - you don't have to carry them. Let them go.

CODY YATES: Out here on the trail, your mind starts to work through those issues.

LAWRENCE: Cody Yates did 20 years - Marine Corps and Army.

YATES: Whether you want it to or not, you'll be hiking along and all of a sudden your mind just goes off into that realm. It says, OK. You know, I've had a few friends, you know, that have died over in Afghanistan. We'll never completely get over it, but it's been really great for that.

LAWRENCE: Yates was technically still in the Army for the first few days of the hike.

So you don't even know what it's like to be out of the military?

YATES: No (laughter). No. I just transitioned from one thing straight to the next.

LAWRENCE: After two decades, Yates says his wife encouraged him to take this trip to reflect and also figure out what's next. He's still working on that part but with a much quieter mind than six months ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

LAWRENCE: In the morning, it's one more mountain to climb - nearly a mile high. It's a tough hike but a perfect day - barely a cloud. On Mount Katahdin's plateau, a pair of ravens are playing, catching the updraft off a granite cliff again and again just for fun. Then the hikers reached the summit.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Warrior Hike.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You guys made it.

LAWRENCE: The celebration is mellow, mostly just broad smiles and some hugging. The epiphanies came during the journey, not at the peak. Diana Brown, the Air Force vet, sits down and takes in the view.

You feel done?

BROWN: No, I got to get down (laughter). Got to get off the mountain.

LAWRENCE: On the way down, no one is really clear on what's next, just that they've learned one way to deal with a troubled mind is to walk it off. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.