Five military veterans, having returned from Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, are hiking the Pacific Crest Trail to ‘walk off the war.’ They will come through Idyllwild this Saturday and be guests of American Legion Post 800 for a community meet-and-greet dinner from 6 to 8 p.m.
Warrior Hike, “Walk Off the War,” is a program of outdoor wilderness exercise therapy designed to support veterans transitioning from front-line military service into civilian life. Former Marine Corps Capt. Sean Gobin created the program after completing his own six-month, 2,185-mile hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2012.
Gobin had decided to hike the Appalachian Trail after returning from three combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he believed he needed time and solitude to decompress and effectively transition from combat duty to civilian life. He stated that his original purpose, other than to experience the tranquility of being in the wilderness, was to raise money to purchase adaptive vehicles for injured returning vets. A secondary goal was to acquaint citizens in towns and veterans organizations along the trail with the difficulty returning vets have acclimating themselves to civilian life after serving in wartime conditions. Many return with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or other mental health conditions.
The often rapid transition from war-zone combat to civilian life has historically proven difficult for the more than 2.5 million veterans who have returned from the front lines since 2001. “The Department of Veterans Affairs is still struggling to catch up [with returning vet psychological issues],” said Gobin. “Obtaining counseling requires going through a lot of red tape. As a result the primary solution is to medicate. And the side effects of the pills can often be worse than PTSD.”
Gobin said he thought his own hiking experience could benefit other vets. “I realized this could be an alternative therapy — that hiking and being outside in wilderness areas could provide a permanent coping mechanism. It’s not a cure but a reset button,” he noted, “one that is free and that [the vets] could continue to use.”
The five vets hiking the PCT who will be at American Legion Post 800 are:
- Thomas Bielecki, from Grand Rapids, Michigan, an Army infantryman who enlisted in 1984 and whose most recent deployment was to Afghanistan in 2012. Bielecki lives in Alto, Michigan and plans to complete his bachelor’s degree in nursing after the hike.
- Kevin Black, from Clarksburg, West Virginia., enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1978 as a legal services specialist. Black deployed to Saudi Arabia in 1990 with the Headquarters and Services Battalion, 2nd Force Services Support and in 2002 to Kuwait with the 2nd Marine Logistics Group. He currently lives in Ocean-side and plans to sail around the world with his wife after his hike.
- Angela Powell enlisted in the Navy in 2002 as a damage controlman. She was born in South Haven, Kansas and currently lives in Prescott, Arizona. In 2009, Powell deployed to Iraq and in 2011 to the Persian Gulf. She plans to finish her bachelor’s degree in nursing and adventure education after the hike.
- Joshua Shields, from Mundelein, Illinois, enlisted in the Air Force in 2006 as an airborne cryptologic language analyst. In 2008, 2009 and 2010 Shields deployed to Iraq with the 97th Intelligence Squadron. He now lives in Saint Amant, Louisiana, and is planning to finish his bachelor’s degree in earth science after the PCT.
- Shawn White, originally from Virginia Beach, Virginia, enlisted in the Army in 2004 as a combat engineer. White served tours of duty in Iraq in 2007 and 2009 and in Afghanistan in 2012. White lives in Olympia, Washington, and intends to earn his bachelor’s degree in recreation therapy after his hike.
Gobin started his 501(c)(3) nonprofit while in graduate school at the University of Virginia. It soon consumed his attention and dedication. He was in the hiring process as a Drug Enforcement Agency special agent when he decided to focus his attention and career on the Warrior Hike. From one supported hike for vets on the Appalachian Trail in 2013, Gobin expanded the itineraries to include the PCT and Continental Divide Trail in 2014. In 2015, Gobin plans to launch a paddling trip down the entire Mississippi for vets who have lower extremity injuries and cannot complete a trail hike.
Gobin credits Earl Shaffer with the idea of hiking as a transition therapy from war to peace. In 1948, Shaffer, returning from service in World War II, said he was “going to take a walk,” becoming the first person to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. Shaffer touted the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual benefits of long-distance hiking as a critical element in allowing him to minimize wartime stress and angst, and return to civilian life.
Gobin noted filmmakers are documenting this year’s Continental Divide Warrior Walk and that there is a Warrior Walk cameo in Robert Redford’s upcoming 2015 release, “A Walk in the Woods,” a retelling of Bill Bryson’s Appalachian Trail hike reintegration into U.S. culture after two decades in England.
Gobin said the five hikers coming to Idyllwild need local transportation from trail drop-off to American Legion Post 800, donations and community support at the April 26 potluck where the hikers will tell their stories of military service and the PCT hike from 5 to 7 p.m. See Warrior Hike stories and donation information at www.warriorhike.com. Locals who want to provide transportation from trail to Legion and want more general information about the event may call Post 800 at (951) 659-3517.
Rick Foster, Post 800 coordinator for the hikers’ visit, noted that the Sons of the American Legion are providing food for the event and that all community residents are welcome. He also stated that Chris Singer, Nancy Layton and Terri Richardson are supplying housing for the vets for doing laundry, sleeping in a soft bed and catching some uninterrupted shut eye.