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Appalachian Trail offers more than recreation to combat veterans

W. Kenneth Medley II • May 6, 2019 at 12:00 AM

Sitting down at Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky Hostel and Outfitter with a group of combat veteran thru hikers of the Appalachian Trail will make one reminiscent of days spent with grunts on the front line.

Rucks sacks strewn about, the smell of sweat and activity in the air and a group of fit individuals that clearly need to shower are things seen in two places. One is an platoon in the field, the other is a group of thru hikers at Uncle Johnny’s taking a break from the trail.

“Warrior Expeditions is sponsoring us, and we are five of the 10 selected,” said Allison Garrigus, U.S. Navy veteran. “They are a non-profit organization that supports outdoor therapy for veterans to transition back to the civilian community or work through some issues that they may have individually. They sponsor us fully with clothing and gear, we hike and the whole goal in the big scheme is to trust in community, trust in each other and go from there.”

Others in the group present at Uncle Johnny’s are Matthew DesChamps, U.S. Navy; and Adam Shapiro, James Jackson and Jon Orosz who are all U.S. Army veterans. They enjoy an eclectic background of military specialties and represent ranks from both the officer and enlisted corps. One thing that is pointed out is that all are combat veterans.

The reasons they are on the trail, personally, vary as much as the individuals. All reasons are therapeutic in nature whether it is gaining self-efficacy or trusting in a community again. One hiker put the AT on his bucket list a long time ago.

“The Appalachian Trail has been a like long goal of mine,” Orosz said, “since before I even thought about joining the military. Then especially after learning that the first thru-hiker, Earl Shafer, was a WWII veteran himself. There is definitely an intersection of veterans and finding that camaraderie and peace in the outdoors.”

Therapy in the outdoors is not a new concept. One could say that Whitman, Frost and Thoreau found their peace in nature. Buddhist, Christians and other religions have placed monasteries it outlying areas for hundreds and thousands of years. The U.S. Army began reintegration programs for combat veterans returning from deployments involving Outdoor Recreation programs in European theaters as early as 2009.

“A lot of people come home and don’t take the time to familiarize themselves or become accustomed to civilian life,” Shapiro said. “That was me when I came back. I didn’t take the time to invest in therapy or anything to readjust to civilian civilization. This helps to decompress the time I spent in war. A lot of us picked up a sense that you cannot trust a community during wartime. It is an adjustment period and definitely a readjustment period to familiarize us to be accustomed and decompress from the war experience.”

The hikers said that the weather had been a challenge. Shapiro is from Florida and said that snow and ice is not is element. DesChamps added that although they were all in relatively good shape and health, each had aches and pains to deal with. The crowd laughed when asked if ibuprofen had been consumed. Thru hikers often refer to the common painkiller as Vitamin I.

Other challenges were common ones. The long distance from family and loved ones. Waking up on cold mornings and having to crawl out of a warm sleeping bag to break camp is a favorite.

“Some of us have spouses back home,” Garrigus said. “My husband was very supportive but there are still dynamics that go on day-to-day. You are hiking up a mountain and you have other things sometimes on your mind, relationships things with the distance. Those are the challenges for me, making sure that everything is good at home. The physical has been interesting. We all have little aches and pains that rotate we deal with.”

Orosz separated from the military a short time before setting out on the AT. He said that he has enjoyed the structure on the trail, which is something he missed after leaving the military. In the military you know when to wake up, physically train, conduct hygiene, work and go home, according to Orosz.

The trail is similar for Orosz. He knows when to wake up and break camp. After, he knows that he will have a walk ahead of him. Then the process of establishing camp begins, before eating and sleep. The sun will rise and start the cycle anew.

“After I left the military,” Orosz said, “there was a big lapse in the consistency of my life. You lose that structure, you lose that camaraderie and a ready made set of friends…I found myself falling into depression and a lot of isolation. The classic not taking joy in the things that I used to enjoy doing.”

The veterans are finding themselves again along the AT. They stopped in our region to stay for a night with some generous host that opened their homes to strangers. Most of the volunteers were older in age and veterans themselves. Only one house out of the host homes did not have a veteran host.

The host all said that it was important these young veterans know that there are those in the community and country that care about them. Some have been doing this for a few years now and plan to continue in the future. They said to see these young people put themselves back together for a brief moment is enough to keep hosting the AT Warriors.

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