BAXTER STATE PARK- What began as a wet and gray journey for the veterans of Warrior Hike at Springer Mountain in Georgia on March 17 ended under beautifully brilliant skies and sunshine at Katahdin on September 12. Four veterans; Todd Rogers and Cecil Thayer, U.S. Marine Corp, Jesse Swensgard, U.S. Air Force and Matt Donnelly, U.S. Navy all finished their long journey in just under six months.
What began as a fundraising hike for veterans at Walter Reed Hospital in 2012, has flourished into so much more for those veterans looking for a way to process their time in combat.
As the warriors made their way from Georgia, each at their own pace, they stopped along the way to be hosted at various VFWs and legion posts along the way. They processed their healing in their own time and in their own way.
Reaching the top of Katahdin, Jesse “Viking” Swensgard grasped the sign in elation of the emotion that came over him. With his wife by his side through the 100 Mile Wilderness and up Katahdin, he stated, “She’s a trooper. She did great. I’m happy she was out here with me.” As for his healing, Viking stated, “I’m looking forward to being a better dad to my three kids when I get back home.”
Warrior Hike founder, Sean Gobin, who hiked the trail in its entirety in 2012, brought together his first class of warriors in 2013 and this year he not only has his team of AT hikers, but is also looking forward to warriors finishing up the Continental Divide and Pacific Crest trails.
“It’s been a whirlwind over the last couple years,” stated Gobin. “We’ve had so much support and now we’re to the point where we have to be more creative in how we accept support.”
The program has grown so quickly, in fact, that Gobin has already added a paddle for veterans with lower extremity disabilities for the 2015 program. Those veterans will paddle the entire 2,320 miles of the Mississippi River.
Following last year’s completion of the Appalachian Trail, two students from Georgia Southern University, Zachary Dietrich and Joseph Garcia, with the help of Shauna Joye, a professor at Georgia Southern University and faculty sponsor, followed up with the warriors to research the effects of a long-term wilderness experience.
The paper, published last spring, focused on conclusions for the following objectives; Social Reconnection, Life Improving Change, Inner Peace/Psychological Healing and Processing, and Reflection.
“Our research aimed to evaluate the claims made by the Warrior Hike Program that hiking the Appalachian Trail aids combat veterans in the transition from military to civilian life and gives them time and space to process their combat experiences to alleviate psychological distress. Our initial findings supported the goal of the Warrior Hike Program.”
Their research concluded that they will continue to follow up with participants over the 12 to 18 months after completion of the hike to observe long-term results. Researchers also made plans with the group to evaluate veterans while they’re on the trail to see if the wilderness experience can be enhanced by adding a therapy component.
Researcher Dietrich and Professor Joye accompanied the veterans to the top of Katahdin on September 12 and will continue to monitor participants over the next 12 to 18 months to observe the effects of their six-month wilderness experience.
When asked if he had a plan to make Warrior Hike his life, Founder Sean Gobin, answered, “I never thought I would be doing this work when my enlistment was up,” stated Gobin. “But Warrior Hike has chosen me to see this program through and I’m excited for what’s to come.”
If you wish to follow Warrior Hike or show your support by purchasing some WH gear, please visit www.warriorhike.org or you can find them on Facebook.