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Bridging the Gap: How Warrior Hike Helps Vets Walk Off the War

December 21, 2015
AMC Outdoors March/April 2016: Warrior Hike
Courtesy of Warrior HikeA 2015 Warrior Hike participant crosses Pochuck Creek, on the AT in New Jersey, in early July 2015.

When infantryman Nate Buchholz told his Army buddies he was embarking on a 60-mile backpacking trip in his native Minnesota, they couldn’t believe it. “Everyone thought I was crazy,” he recalls. “We just got back from doing that,” they’d say to him. Buchholz, now 25, had just returned from his first tour of Afghanistan in 2012, where he had carried his rucksack up hills and out into that country’s dry wild, always under the threat of combat.

A lifelong outdoorsman, Buchholz didn’t listen to the naysayers. When he returned from the Minnesota hike, he began preparing for an even longer backpack, this time a 2,160-mile journey on the East Coast. “I had been planning a thru-hike [on the Appalachian Trail] for the last five years,” he says. “But I ended up reenlisting so I could stay with my team.” As soon as he was honorably discharged in the winter of 2015, he picked the idea back up.

“When I was growing up, I used camping and longer hikes as a way to retreat,” Buchholz says. After two stints in the theater of war, he once again turned to nature for an escape. He quickly found he wasn’t the only vet considering the AT. Another Nate—Nathan Mori, a Marine who had returned from a 2013 tour of Afghanistan—was growing increasingly interested in the famous footpath that ran past his new home in Chucky, Tenn. Originally from California, Mori had never done much hiking and wasn’t all that familiar with the Appalachian Trail, but his interest was piqued when he relocated to the hills of the Volunteer State. He started doing some research.

Meanwhile, Michelle Revoir had only been home a few months from serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan as an Air Force combat journalist when she began looking into an AT hike. “I’ve always been a hiker and camper—an outdoorsy person,” she says. “It was perfect timing. I had just left the military and didn’t have a job.”

Then they all found Sean Gobin.

A retired Marine captain and veteran of three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gobin, now 38, had been there, done that, and was ready to help others do the same. Within hours of his return from Operation Enduring Freedom, in 2012, Gobin and a buddy set out from Springer Mountain, Ga., the southern terminus of the AT, on the long hike north to Katahdin, in Maine. His friends thought he was crazy too. “My XO [executive officer] couldn’t believe I wanted to haul a ruck again, on purpose,” he says.

But as the intrepid Marine would find, the solace of the wild and the challenge of outdoor adventure are far from a far-fetched therapy for battle-scarred veterans. After several months on the trail, Gobin had an epiphany: “By the time I reached New England, probably Vermont or so, I started to realize what an effect the trail had had on me and how beneficial it might be to other vets.”

And so, Warrior Hike was born.

*****

Sean Gobin’s journey began in Iraq. The Rhode Island native comes from a long line of enlisted men—his father, uncle, and grandfather all served—so it was natural for the young Gobin to have his head turned by the military. He tried college but found it too static. “I’ve always been an outdoor freak, and I got tired of sitting in organic chemistry class,” he says. “So I walked down to the recruiter’s office and signed up.”

Gobin had planned on joining the Army Rangers, but they turned him away due to a blood pressure issue. “They wouldn’t take me,” he says with a chuckle. “But the Marines would.” After months of training, he ended up as the platoon leader of a tank battalion. It was his choice, and there was an irony to it: “I got tired of hiking in the infantry.”

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Marine Captain Sean Gobin was right out front. “We were the lead element of the lead element,” he says. Things soon turned ugly, and Gobin saw the horrors of war firsthand. At the Battle of Baghdad, his best friend died in front of him. “A major sent him to the front in a Humvee—an unarmored Humvee—and he was killed instantly,” when the vehicle hit three improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

Gobin saw more combat during his second deployment, clearing insurgents in Fallujah. “That was urban warfare,” he says. He returned to the Middle East in 2011 for a third tour, to Afghanistan. There, he and a fellow soldier began planning a hike on the Appalachian Trail. “I had always wanted to do the AT for the challenge and the adventure of it,” he says. “My buddy came up with the idea to do it as a fundraiser [for veterans causes], stopping at VFWs in trail towns all the way.”

Gobin found himself at Springer Mountain less than a day after his plane touched down Stateside. As he and his buddy trekked north, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy heard about the pair of vets walking off the war. “They reached out to us because they wanted to start a veterans organization,” Gobin says. That idea morphed into Warrior Hike, which Gobin now heads full time as the executive director. “I’ve been working 15-hour days,” he says. “I packed three years into last year.”

Warrior Hike sponsors veterans on long-distance hikes, giving them the opportunities to find the same peace Gobin discovered in the woods, to enjoy the companionship of fellow combat vets, and to reflect on what they’ve been through and what’s next. The nonprofit, which exists on donations and grants, supplies all of the gear its participants need (donated by some of the country’s biggest outdoor companies), arranges food drops, provides a stipend, lends moral support and guidance, and sets up overnights at VFW halls and other lodgings along the trail, offering home-cooked meals and bonhomie.

Gobin and a staff of 12 volunteers review the applicants—more than 300 so far for the 2016 AT cohort—and pick about a dozen per hike. Veterans must have been deployed in an area of active combat and have been honorably discharged. Gobin sends each cohort information on what they’ll need; he meets participants before they hit the trail; and he keeps in touch at least once a week as the hikers make their way north, monitoring progress and ensuring everything runs smoothly. He visits them again midway and then travels to Maine to complete the final 5 miles with the group. Once the vets have finished their journey, Warrior Hike provides connections with partnering companies and veterans employment organizations.

The AT is Warrior Hike’s most popular trail, but Gobin sends vets on the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and on shorter treks too. In 2015, he added Warrior Paddle, a 2,320-mile canoe and kayak trip down the length of the Mississippi River, and is looking into a several additional hikes across the nation.

When Nate Buchholz, Michelle Revoir, and Nate Mori were scanning the Internet for information on the AT, they landed on Warrior Hike. “I only found out [about Warrior Hike] about a month beforehand,” Revoir says. “I was planning my own hike and ran across them on Facebook.” The three met for the first time on March 16, 2015, when they hit the trail with eight other vets.

*****

The idea of walking off the war isn’t a new one. When Alexander’s men invaded India in 326 BC, they hiked all the way back across the Middle East, to Macedonia, when combat was over. Revolutionary War units routinely logged hundreds of miles, trekking home from battle. The time in transit allowed soldiers to process what they’d been through and to rest their minds before reentering the bustle of everyday life. It was also a necessity. At the time, it was the only way to get home.

Vietnam vets, too, found peace in the woods. Douglas Peacock, who inspired Edward Abbey’s famous wildman George Washington Hayduke of The Monkey Wrench Gang, penned a 2005 memoir called Walking It Off, in which he recounts how wilderness trips helped clear his mind after seeing combat in southeast Asia.

And then there was Earl Shaffer. Often credited as the first thru-hiker on the Appalachian Trail, the “Original Crazy One” took to the woods in 1948 in order to help ease the post-traumatic stress he suffered serving as a radioman in the Pacific during World War II.

A new study suggests this wild treatment so many veterans have come to on their own is indeed a viable therapy, with measurable results. In a report currently under review, “Mental Health Benefits of a Long-Term Wilderness Experience for Combat Veterans,” Dr. Shauna Joye, a psychology professor at Georgia Southern University, and her research partner, Zachary Dietrich, conclude: “Long-distance hiking led to clinically significant or marginally significant decreases in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD.”

The study’s subjects were Warrior Hike participants. Joye and Dietrich met with the 2013 and 2014 cohorts, following their progress up the AT; visiting them in Georgia; midjourney at Harpers Ferry, W. Va.; and then joining the 2013 group for the final 5 miles up Katahdin. After interviewing the hikers and running them through several psychological tests, Joye and Dietrich came away certain there is solid science behind the Warrior Hike model.

“Research has shown hiking, backpacking, and other outdoor adventures to have a range of benefits, including psychological, spiritual, and physical, for all ages and across groups of people,” Joye says. “Just sitting outdoors in a natural setting for as short a period of time as 15 minutes increases well-being and decreases stress hormones.”

Among veterans, those benefits can be even more pronounced, especially with prolonged engagement. “Long-term, vigorous exercise releases a protein called BDNF, which promotes growth of new synapses in the brain, potentially promoting better ability to think and possibly even to process trauma and fear,” Joye says. Research has shown BDNF to reduce some of the effects of PTSD.

What’s more, the exhaustion that comes from logging long miles can help vets get a good night’s sleep after years on high alert—in effect, resetting the sleep cycle. “By exerting energy all day and being outside when the sun sets, we force our bodies onto a more natural, healthy daily rhythm,” Joye says. Hikers tend to sleep better and deeper, and the benefits compound from there. “Sleep is important in so many things: physical healing, attention, stress, irritability and other emotions, even weight management,” Joye says.

Veterans who participated in the study cited many areas in which their lives improved on the trail. At the hike’s outset, many claimed they felt distant from everyday society and uncomfortable around civilians, who didn’t understand what they’d gone through. Once they set out on the hike, the group quickly became a support network, and close friendships formed. The hikers also interacted with civilians along the way: other thru-hikers; the volunteers who fed them at VFWs; and the outdoor enthusiasts who shared bunkhouses, shelters, and campsites along the trail. “What the trail does is strip that all away, so everybody is at ground zero and going through the same things,” one veteran told Joye. “You can immediately relate to these people and have something in common.”

The vets in Joye and Dietrich’s study also noted being moved by the kindness of strangers along the way. “One veteran told us about a group of older ladies making hot dogs in a trail parking lot,” Joye says. The soldier told her: “Stuff like that instills in you a sense of what we really fought for. There’s a reason we go to war, and it’s to fight for these people and this country…. There’s wonderful people in this country, and hiking the Appalachian Trail truly shows you who these wonderful people are.”

*****

“Was it therapeutic?” Nate Buchholz asks, sitting outside the bunkhouse at AMC’s Gorman Chairback Lodge, deep in the woods of Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness. “Absolutely.” Tall and rangy, Buchholz has the telltale beard of a thru-hiker and the eyes of someone who has seen a lot and survived it.

Coolhand Nate, as he’s known on the trail, is spending the night here at Gorman, just off the AT. He and the rest of his cohort will hit the trail again tomorrow, less than two weeks from reaching the summit of Katahdin. But this evening, along with Michelle Revoir and Nate Mori, he’s taking a few minutes to reflect on the journey so far.

“It definitely helps,” Revoir agrees. Known for her wide smile and the sleeve of tattoos down her left arm, Revoir says six months with Warrior Hike has given her time to focus on what she wants out of life. The daughter of a Marine, Revoir has a 4-year-old daughter of her own. “Hiking the trail was definitely the right choice,” she says. “It wasn’t what I thought it would be. But it pointed me in the right direction. I want to do outdoor photography and video. And sail. I want to sail around the world.”

Through backpacking, she has gained an appreciation for a simpler mode of living. “In some ways, it’s very similar to deployment, in the sense that you’re not in the real word,” she says. “You’re not worried about bills, about work, all those things. You realize you don’t need all the material crap that you have. We’ve spent six months and not needed any of that stuff.”

Mori concurs. “It helped me get some things in order and clear my head a bit,” he says. Tall, dark, and circumspect, the Marine is already planning a hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. “It’s simplistic. You know what you have to do that day. You get up. You eat. You hike.”

As for him, Buchholz says hiking the AT with Warrior Hike was a game-changer, providing a new perspective on the future. He went into the Army partly because he was unsure of what he wanted to do with his life: “I was looking for something more, I guess. I don’t know if I was the college type. I wanted an adventure. I don’t regret it. I don’t know why I did it, but I don’t regret it.”

Buchholz says the kinship he has found is one of Warrior Hike’s biggest rewards. “I don’t think in any other circumstance [outside of the service] have I met such a concentration of veterans,” he says. “Being with other vets is a big deal. They’re going through the same things we’re going through. The kind of person who would volunteer to deploy in the military is the same kind of person who would walk 2,000 miles.”

Buchholz sees other benefits as well. “I’ve developed ideas of what I want to do,” he says. “I realized I have an interest in photography, so I’d like to do some of that. But I also realized that it’s OK to not have a plan.” He understands why some vets have no interest in ever backpacking again. “It’s totally different in the Army,” he says. “It’s not enjoyable.” But hiking the Appalachian Trail, spending six months outdoors, surrounded by some of the nation’s most spectacular scenery and fellow vets, has been just the thing for him.

“It’s been a good transition,” he says. “I couldn’t think of a better way. This hike has opened up a whole new window. This is how I want to spend the rest of my life. I know if I want a break, I can go for a hike for a week and get away. It’s in our blood now.”


LEARN MORE

For more on Warrior Hike, visit the group’s website. To make your own reservations for accommodations where past Warrior Hike cohorts have stayed the night, see AMC’s lodgings. To learn about AMC’s partnership with another inspiring veterans organization, read Onward, Upward, and Outside.


 

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Andrew Vietze

Andrew Vietze is a freelance writer, a Maine Guide, a Baxter State Park ranger, and the author of eight books, including 'Boon Island' and 'Becoming Teddy Roosevelt.'