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John Paradis: How combat veterans can heal by taking the next hill



Friday, August 08, 2014
RUSSELL — Just after dusk in the hall of the General Knox Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6645, three men, all military veterans, are sharing what it’s like to get up each morning and hike for an entire day, followed by another day, then another, then another.

With eyes red from a lack of sleep and sporting full beards that remind you of last year’s Sox lineup, they are a hardened, weather beaten, and hungry trio of mountaineers.

Some might also describe them as masochistic. To each other, they are known by their trail names: “Big Foot,” a Marine rifleman who fought in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004; “Viking,” an Air Force C-130 crew chief and Afghanistan veteran; and “Machine,” a Navy Persian Gulf veteran.

They are 19 weeks into a six-month Warrior Hike odyssey from Georgia to Maine on the “AT,” the 2,185-mile Appalachian Trail as members of the “Walk Off the War” Warrior Hike program.

On this summer night, in a hall near the boulder-strewn Westfield River, the veterans are introduced to a small gathering of well-wishers at a community reception that includes a well-earned feast of lasagna, chicken Francaise, ziti and vegetables.

They descended to Russell from Lee in a van driven by a volunteer with the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Noble View Outdoor Center, where they enjoyed showers and rest after spending the day zig-zagging up and down rock ledges and through meadows and wildflowers on the trail past Beartown State Forest.

Later they’ll get to sleep in real beds with a roof over their heads — a rare treat when hiking the trail and the comforts of home are hundreds of miles away. This would be their last stop before the most challenging, strenuous and remote stretch of the trail before finishing at Mount Kathahdin in Maine.

The program was started a few years ago by Sean Gobin, a former Marine Corps captain, who hiked the AT after three combat tours. But its true genesis dates back to 1948 when World War II veteran Earl Shaffer of York County, Pennsylvania, whose trail name was “The Crazy One,” became the trail’s first through-hiker, completing the continuous journey in 124 days.

Before Shaffer and a buddy named Walter Winemiller were sent to the South Pacific to fight in World War II, they made plans to hike the AT after the war. Winemiller died in the landings at Iwo Jima. Shaffer hiked the trail as a memorial to his friend and, as he wrote in his journal, “to walk the army out of my system.”

Under Gobin’s leadership and the support of the AMC and organizations like the VFW and others, veterans have completed an epic adventure of a lifetime, helping restore bodies and lives shattered by war. Most of the participants fight wounds seen and unseen after service in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.

The trail offers them peace and solitude — time in nature to do nothing but process their experiences and to come to terms with their emotions. With stops like the one in Russell, the Warrior Hike has also restored their faith in humanity.

In war, Jesse Swensgard, aka “Viking,” tells the VFW audience, “you see the worst in people, the extremists. But that’s not how the world works. There are good people out there; good people like you in this room, here and all over. Doing this, reaffirms for us that life is good.”

In the past 10 years, as returning combat veterans look for answers in dealing with their sometimes horrific experiences, many groups and organizations are helping with nature. Programs include ones funded and coordinated by the Department of Veterans Affairs as well as ones sponsored by nonprofits such as Soldiers to Summits, Project Healing Waters and Veterans Expeditions.

The programs have especially helped veterans who have been on meds or in and out of therapy for post traumatic stress disorder. In a time when the number of veterans with mental health and self-destructive behaviors has increased by more than 40 percent in the past 12 years, such programs have offered veterans perhaps the best medicine: a healthy dose of determination and the esprit des corps of being with other veterans.

At the Russell community event was John Judge, president of the Boston-based AMC, and the son of a Marine Corps drill instructor. In his youth, Judge remembers his father finding great comfort outdoors.

“Einstein said, ‘if you’re looking for answers, look to nature,’” says Judge. Hiking the trail pushes veterans to physical limits but it’s appealing due to the mental effort involved, he says. “They learn about nature; they learn about themselves.”

The outdoors and the common bond of mountaineers can make our veterans healthy, in mind, body and spirit. These programs require a commitment and understanding from family members, whether it takes a few days, weeks or six months. They also demand the financial support from government and private and public donations.

“Doing this is one of the most selfish things anyone can do because it’s all about you,” says Swensgard.

He says he has texted his wife every night since he left his home in Ohio in March. “Every night, I text her and ask her, ‘when can I go home?’” he says. “And she always says, ‘not until you’re done.’”

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a monthly column that appears on the second Friday. He is the deputy superintendent for the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke.