“Walking Off the War”: Hiking the Appalachian Trail with Warrior Expeditions
On March 21, 2016, I started my thru-hike with the non-profit organization Warrior Expeditions to follow in the footsteps of the first Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, World War II veteran Earl Schaffer, who told his friends and family that he was going to “walk off the war.”
Unlike the majority of combat veterans throughout history who often had long marches or ocean crossings back to the homeland to reflect on their experiences, today’s warriors can hop on a plane and be home from combat in 24 hours. Many leaving the military eventually face an overwhelming feeling of being lost or purposeless after years of living so differently from the rest of the world. The combat zone experience is deeply primal, and living within tightly knit tribes of people who must depend on each other for survival is not often found in civilian life.
Those who experience combat shoulder the burden of their military service daily. Tim O’Brien wrote in “The Things They Carried” about the physical and psychological cargo that the troops in Vietnam struggled to carry on a daily basis while taking on an unforgiving jungle and an unconventional enemy. Many things remain the same from the Vietnam war O’Brien described. Warriors in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan alike have carried M-16 rifles, heavy radio equipment, grenades, maps and compasses, along with the constant fear of enemy booby-traps, the anxiety of routine sniper fire, and dealing with the uncertainty of not knowing if you will ever see your loved ones again.
One of the lessons of Appalachian Trail hiking is figuring out the proper things to carry along the journey. Many begin with excess baggage, carrying altogether too much junk or sub-par tools and equipment making their lives more difficult than necessary. Hikers begin to learn along the way which things aren’t worth their weight and ditch them as they go. They often pick up new tricks or gear to help optimize their experience on the trail. A thru-hiker eventually becomes a master of their gear, learning the best ways to pack and store items efficiently and how to most comfortably wear their packs. They might come to enjoy the weight, a comfort in having all you need strapped to your back, an acceptance of it as a necessary part of the journey.
After finishing my hike on September 18, I don’t think it’s possible for veterans to ever completely walk off their war. But they can find better ways to walk with it. The journey along the Appalachian Trail provides an opportunity to find the things we might be carrying that aren’t worth the weight, and maybe to find a few things along the way that help make the long path a bit more enjoyable to travel. Time on the trail can teach when packs aren’t riding quite right, which straps might need a little tightening or loosening, and how to accept the burden as part of the journey.
Learn more about Warrior Expeditions here.
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