Warrior Hikers at Idyllwild American Legion Post 800 Saturday night. From left, Eric Sorensen, Anne Dios, Legion Post Commander Danny Richardson, Tony Jaramillo, Sharon Smith and Steve Thomas. Photo by Marshall Smith
Warrior Hikers at Idyllwild American Legion Post 800 Saturday night. From left, Eric Sorensen, Anne Dios, Legion Post Commander Danny Richardson, Tony Jaramillo, Sharon Smith and Steve Thomas. Photo by Marshall Smith

American Legion Post 800 hosted five service vets hiking the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail as part of the “Warrior Hike — Walk off the War” program. The Warrior Hike, now conducted on three long-distance national scenic trails and three shorter trails in Wisconsin, Florida and Arizona, offers returning combat veterans a chance to decompress after war-zone deployments. The PCT begins at Campo, California on the border with Mexico just east of San Diego and ends in British Columbia just north of the U.S. border.

The warmth of the fireplace at the Legion was a marked contrast to the cold rain outside, as post personnel provided a brats and chili dinner to the hikers on Saturday, April 25. Hikers mingled with attendees and shared stories of their journey to-date. The five vets, three from the Army, and one each from the Air Force and Marine Corps, plan to complete the entire PCT. The five, Army vets Anne Dios (Sunland), Tony Jaramillo (Hesperia) and Eric Sorensen (Lacey, Washington), Air Force vet Sharon Smith (Banner Elk, North Carolina) and Marine Corps vet Steve Thomas (Encinitas) were upbeat about their undertaking and had an easy and joking camaraderie. A sixth, Army vet Joshua Staggs, suffered an injured Achilles tendon early in the hike and may not be able to rejoin his comrades. But Sorensen’s 27-year-old son Ryan just joined the group, bringing the complement back to six. He plans to hike with the group until trail’s end.

The Warrior Hike’s mission, in addition to experiencing the camaraderie and solitude of life on the trails, is to publicize the health challenges facing returning veterans.

Former Marine Corps Capt. Sean Gobin started the Warrior Hike program in 2013 after completing a six-month hike of the 2,185-mile Appalachian Trail in 2012. Gobin had completed three combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and recognized he needed time to decompress in order to ease the transition into civilian life. Confronting statistics that 20 percent of the 2.5 million vets who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, Gobin understood that others could heal during the prolonged wilderness experience. Gobin noted that in past wars, combat veterans often walked home from their service, as Civil War vets did. With modern transportation methods, a veteran can be in heavy combat one day and be back in civilian life less than a week later.

“Many veterans cannot make that transition,” said 2015 PCT hiker Smith. “Many have deep psychological scars, post traumatic stress and are strangers to their families. That’s why they re-up and re-deploy — to be with their service brothers and sisters.

This hike gives veterans five to six months to let nature heal them, to hike with their service comrades and gradually let go of the stress from combat duty.”

According to a report released by the Department of Veterans Affairs, 22 veterans take their own lives each day — a suicide every 65 minutes. The data is derived from agency reports from 21 states from 1999 through 2011, representing 30 percent of the U.S. population. Two of the largest states, California and Texas, as well as Illinois, did not submit data so the rate of 22 a day may actually be higher.

On Saturday night the five vets, joined by Ryan, had already bonded into a cohesive unit. Smith, trail name “Mama Goose,” formerly an Air Force medical service specialist and current EMT, looks after her clan, seeing to their on-trail blisters and ailments, and offering support and encouragement. Thomas, trail name “Super Tramp,” is the scout and point man. Jaramillo, trail name “Cav,” named for his gentlemanly politeness, smooths over differences. Neither Sorenson nor Dios have trail names yet. Trail names must be given to a hiker based on some observed quirk or characteristic. Eric’s son Ryan is called “Yard Sale,” based on his habit of unpacking his pack every night and spreading all his belongings around him.

Mama Goose Smith said she would keep the Town Crier informed as the Warrior Hikers progress northward. For 2015 Warrior Hike stories and posts, and to donate to the Warrior Hike nonprofit 501(c)(3), visit www.warriorhike.org.

Dave Fraser, Post 800 adjutant, coordinated Saturday’s Warrior Hike event, and the dinner was sponsored by the Sons of the American Legion.