In a trek from Georgia to Maine, a group of veterans aims to ‘Walk Off the War’

They arrive early on a warm June afternoon, caked with dirt and sweat, lugging heavy gear through lush Virginia woods that obscure the swirl of storm clouds overhead. Past the trailhead, in the parking lot at the Blackburn Trail Center in Round Hill, Va., a ride into town awaits the three men — all military veterans who began their journey nearly three months and a thousand miles ago.

When the veterans started walking in March, there were 14 of them, the complete team of 2014 Appalachian Trail hikers with the nonprofit Warrior Hike “Walk Off the War” program, created by U.S. Marine Corps veteran Sean Gobin last year to help veterans decompress from their deployments and re-acclimate to civilian life. After return ing from three deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gobin hiked the entire Appalachian Trail — known as “thru-hiking” — in 2012. The experience was transformative, he says, and he wanted other veterans to have the same opportunity. He envisioned an organization that would provide them with the supplies and resources they would need to make the trip.

“You’re not in front of a computer, you’re not in front of a TV, your brain has no choice but to process all those experiences,” he says. “By the time you get to the end of the thru-hike, you’ve really worked out those emotions. . . . You’ve been reminded that there are so many people out there who are inherently good, and you’re really in the right place to start the next chapter of your life.”

Nearly 40 hikers, including three women, have participated in the program — veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, at Ground Zero in New York, and at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, among other places. This year, Warrior Hike grew to include teams on the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. Gobin also hopes to start a paddling program on the Mississippi River, offering a similar experience to veterans with leg injuries or amputations. With the help of a World War II veteran who had to leave the group this year, there are plans to organize shorter hikes along scenic routes as well.

The appeal of the hiking program is its implicit promise: that a roughly 2,000-mile pilgrimage through austere wilderness, in the company of those who know what you’ve been though, might lead to solace and peace. The program’s name comes from a phrase uttered by the first person to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, a World War II veteran named Earl Shaffer who, before he set out in 1948, told a friend that he needed to “walk off the war.”

The concept is lofty and lovely. The reality is less idyllic. There is the exertion and exhaustion of the trek, along with inevitable blisters, and lousy weather, and the monotony of portable trail food. Since starting their hike March 17, several hikers have left the trail — including Brian Wing, a 50-year-old Coast Guard veteran who suffered a knee injury and has taken two rehabilitation periods to heal. But Wing returned this week, bringing the current total to seven hikers, and two more plan to rejoin the group as it makes its way north into Maryland and Pennsylvania.

By now, they know what they’re in for, Wing says: “It’s a roller coaster. You have days where you want to sit down on the trail and cry, then other days that are wonderful, where you get to a beautiful peak and feel good.”

On this balmy June night, the veterans are staying at Boulder Crest Retreat for Wounded Warriors, a rural sanctuary for veterans in Bluemont, Va., where the group will be received by a community of military members and supporters who have gathered to cheer them on.

Nearly 1,200 miles still lie ahead, a journey that, if all goes according to plan, will end in September at the crest of Mount Katahdin in northern Maine. Matthew Donnelly, a 29-year-old Navy veteran, can’t even think about it yet.

“It’s physically hard, but it’s really a mental game,” Donnelly says. “You have to take it one day at a time, one meal at a time, five miles at a time. If you start thinking about Maine, you’ll drive yourself nuts.”

That’s because walking thousands of miles through nature is stunning and awesome, except for when it isn’t, he says. Like on the days when the cold is so bitter you can’t feel your fingers, or when a pulled muscle makes it excruciating to walk, or when you wake up and realize that another dozen miles lies ahead.

“It’s like a deployment,” says Cosmo Brown, a 26-year-old former Army medic who returned from Afghanistan in November. “There’s this thing you don’t want to do, but you’re doing it together, so that does bind us.”

In the blur of days, a few vivid moments stand out: Donnelly remembers the stone building that appeared like a vision through the trees at Neels Gap in Georgia, where a trail outfitter and hiker hostel offered shelter from a cold, misty rain that plagued the first 30 miles of the trail. The beginning was the hardest part, Donnelly says, because he was still figuring out just what he’d signed himself up for. He made it to Neels Gap before the others and waited for them there. It was a turning point for him and for the group.

“We didn’t know everybody yet, then,” he says. “But after everyone got there, we really started to build a bond. We were in it.”

After that, they helped one another through. When Wing’s knee first gave out in the midst of a 15-degree snowfall near Sassafras Gap in North Carolina, his fellow hikers helped him make it to the nearest shelter two miles away. They offered comforting words before he left the trail on a four-wheeler ATV. And they later welcomed him back with a new nickname: “Evac,” to tease him about his dramatic departure.

On the sprawling stone patio at Boulder Crest, a crowd has gathered to welcome the hiking veterans with a barbecue feast. Gobin is here, along with the retreat’s founders and volunteers, a community of military members and supporters who cheer and whistle when Gobin announces how far the group has traveled, and introduces each hiker by name and military title. They stand in a line, some smiling, some stoic, surrounded by dozens of fans they’ve never met.

They need this, Gobin knows. Wing knows it, too. It’s why he pushed himself to come back, despite the pain in his knee. It might take all these months of isolation from society — save for these curated interactions with people who are kind and generous — to compensate for what Wing saw during his time as homicide detective and a reservist who served at Ground Zero in New York and Guantanamo Bay.

“I’m hoping that this is going to change me,” Wing says. “I want this to change my view of life, and of people in general.”

And maybe all these miles will offer the younger veterans enough space to figure out what to do with their post-military lives.

“I’ll probably go back to school, finish my MBA,” Donnelly says with a shrug. “Right now, I’m enjoying the nature. What happens after, that’s the last thing I want to think about.”

Will this long walk in the woods be enough to prepare for the future — while processing the past?

Wing says his bouts of flashbacks vanished during his time on the trail. But when he returned home to recover from his injury, the flashbacks resurfaced.

They were absent last night, though, the first one back on the trail after Wing’s recent rehab. When the evening storms rolled in over the Blue Ridge, his traveling companions pitched tents on the wet earth; Wing strung his hammock, rain pattering against the sheltering tarp just inches above his face. He lay there and wondered what would happen if lightning struck one of the trees he was between.

Then, he says, he let that worry go: “We’ve made it through other storms.”

Tonight, he’ll sleep in a comfortable bed in a beautiful log cabin. Tomorrow, it’s back out on the trail. After that, he doesn’t know. Wing hopes his knee will hold up and carry him to Maine. He wants to make it that far with the group, to witness the transformations they will encounter along the way — of the seasons, the landscape and, hopefully, themselves.

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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