Warrior Expeditions: One Soldier’s Journey on the Appalachian Trail
On a crisp May morning, while I was providing trail magic at a shelter just north of Hot Springs, I struck up a conversation with a hiker. He introduced himself as Ray Sanchez, and I learned that he was a retired US Army veteran hiking the Appalachian Trail with support from Warrior Expeditions. I immediately knew that I wanted to learn more about his story and the organization that was enabling his adventure. Here’s what I learned…
Root Beer Floats and Chardonnay
One weekend in early May, I decided to take my bloodhounds and teenage granddaughter to do some trail magic at Spring Mountain Shelter on the AT. I loaded up my military duffel-style backpack with a big box of chardonnay, a tub of vanilla fudge swirl ice cream, 3 pounds of dry ice, a 2-liter bottle of root beer, and a bowl of freshly cut pineapple chunks. It weighed about 40 pounds in all and was a plenty big load during the 1.6-mile hike. Never knowing what to expect at a shelter, I was pleasantly surprised to find over a dozen hikers camping nearby.
After setting up and making root beer floats for everyone, I fell into an easy conversation with the man sitting next to me. He was settling into his third cup of wine, looking relaxed, and introduced himself as Ray Sanchez. He and his brother-in-law, Robert, he told me, were Gulf War Veterans and sponsored by Warrior Expeditions. As a Gulf War Veteran myself, I felt a close kinship with them, and we instantly hit it off.
After telling him that I write stories about interesting hikers, Sanchez said, “I have an interesting story. Why not write a story about me?” I didn’t take much convincing once he began explaining his experience. I’d always been keenly interested in Warrior Expeditions, and so was thrilled to make plans to meet for an interview during the upcoming Trail Days festival in Damascus. When the day finally arrived, I drove up and met with Sanchez at the guest house where he was staying.
An Interview with a Gentleman/Warrior
From the moment I shook his hand, Sanchez didn’t strike me as the outwardly tough guy that one might expect when meeting a soldier who’s served for many years in active war zones. Instead, he was soft-spoken and welcoming, with a gentle demeanor.
When I asked about Robert, he told me that not long after we all met, he suffered a hike-ending injury that took him off the trail. But rather than hiking on alone, Sanchez had hooked up with another Warrior Expedition hiker. He missed Robert but knew that it was right to continue.
As we sat across the table from each other on the open porch, the green wooded mountainside in the background created the illusion that we were in the forest. It was the perfect natural backdrop for a hiker story.
“I went into the Army looking for adventure” — Ray Sanchez
Sanchez, a native of El Paso, TX, started his tale, “I went into the Army looking for adventure”. He enlisted in 1985, joining the U.S. Army as an M.P. then spent the next 6 years moving his way up in rank from E1—E6.
After the Gulf War, he became a warrant officer. This is a special agent with the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID), where he learned how to investigate a variety of issues, such as non-combat-related deaths including fratricide and suicides. It also included felony soldier misconduct, such as the killing of civilians and noncombatants, and investigating criminal issues with Army contractors. He performed this job from 1992 until his retirement in December 2020.
Of his experience in the military, Sanchez confidently told me how he loved the Army, “I was a square peg in a square hole”. He went on to say that he thrived in that environment, mainly “because of the value system.”
Not only was military service in his blood, but he seems to have passed it on. His son is currently serving in the Army as a cyber security specialist, and his daughter served a 6-year tour in the Army as a combat photographer. “The Army” he proudly said with a contented smile, “is a family business”.
Combat Experience and PTSD
Despite his obvious pride, Sanchez’s time in the military was not without stress, and being deployed in active war zones took its toll.
In 2006, he was in Iraq as a CID special agent, where he put his training to the test in a real-world combat environment. In 2011 he was again deployed, this time to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan as a newly promoted Special Agent in Charge.
When I asked him if his job took him into danger zones, he said that as an investigator, he was indeed in the same areas where fighting was going on. Being a battlefield detective meant that he often faced the threat of not just roadside bombs, artillery, and small arms fire, but also of the stress that went along with confronting his mortality and the horrors of war. Sanchez admitted that these experiences eventually left him with permanent PTSD-related issues.
The Appalachian Trail Beckons
The idea to hike the Appalachian Trail came to him shortly before he retired. One day, while he was remodeling his home, a traveling solar energy salesman noticed Sanchez’s military paraphernalia and asked him if he’d heard about Warrior Expeditions. The conversation took off — and they didn’t talk about solar. By the time the salesman left, all they’d talked about was the Appalachian Trail!
The idea of hiking the AT stuck with Ray. A few years after retiring, he applied and was accepted by Warrior Expeditions. He had joined the Army looking for adventure. Now he yearned to experience that same feeling in a positive, healthy way.
Warrior Expeditions: making the impossible possible
Working with outdoor companies to source donated gear, Warrior Expeditions is able to supply everything that participants will need on their journey. When he received his package, Sanchez was impressed by the attention to detail. This included every piece of gear, (i.e. backpack, tent, sleeping system, trekking poles, clothing, a new pair of shoes every 400 miles, water filtration system), all his food and snacks, and a $300 dollar monthly stipend. This almost always covers his food costs.
Not only that, but he also showed me a neatly written PDF file on his phone consisting of every detail a hiker could possibly need for a successful thru-hike. The checklist, created by Warrior Expeditions, was just like being back in the military!
In addition to all this material support, Warrior Expeditions has set up a Community Support Network. This group of volunteers at various points along the trail, provides help ranging from transportation, resupply, slackpacking, and lodging. This support is something that Sanchez credits as being vital to the success of his hike. All he has to do is call them up, and help is on the way.
Sanchez said Warrior Expeditions has made such a difference. In his words, Warrior Expeditions, “ the guesswork out of the hike”, and that without it, “I don’t think I’d be on today”.
Getting on Trail
Sanchez said that he views hiking the trail as a way to “close one chapter of my life and open up a new one.” His goal is simple: to bridge the gap between the past 35 years and the next step in his life. He started the AT wanting to have “an epiphany for my life; to determine what my purpose is, and how I can serve humanity in the encore chapter of my life”. Continuing, “Retirement is the opportunity for me to do something different, and the trail is a place where I can quiet the noise and narrative in society and focus on what I want to do next”.
He planned to start the AT by hiking 8 miles per day for the first two weeks in order to get his trail legs. After that, he would then increase his daily mileage by 2 miles each week until he reached 15 miles per day. Instead what he found was “the trail — the terrain and weather — dictates how many miles you do.” He soon learned to modify his mileage goals according to trail conditions.
The Appalachian Trail: a mission and a place of healing
While the trail is a great place for retrospection and introspection, Sanchez said, “The most important thing I found is the love and closeness of humanity on the trail”.
Ever since he set foot on the AT, it felt familiar, almost like he was back in the Army. “It felt like a mission”, and he added, “Getting to Katahdin was my new mission”. Not only is it a mission-familiar experience, but with the brotherhood of military members all looking out for each other, “it’s amazing and very refreshing, waking up every morning knowing that I am part of a team”.
Sanchez is currently hiking with a Marine veteran — “my brother in arms” — and that they share a bond because, “we’re going through the same crucible on the AT, and we’re both better men for it”.
The exhilaration of being on the trail has inspired a new morning ritual. As he said with a smile, “I get up and crow like a rooster!” which has earned him the trail name, Foghorn Leghorn.
Speaking to the equalizing nature of a thru-hike, “I no longer have to fake-it-to-make-it”, meaning that hikers can be themselves — human and vulnerable.
From there he describes the trail as the sanctuary that “gives me the time I need to find a renewed sense of purpose and spirit in my life. It’s the first time in my life I’ve had the time to be selfish: to take care of me.” Contrasting with the rigors and demands of normal life, the trail gives him the space and solitude needed to process his thoughts.
And the simplicity of hiking keeps goals and achievements simple. He boiled it all down to a daily mantra: “Every step north is a victory”. Hiking with Warrior Expeditions, “gives us our second, third, and fourth chance to make things right”.
Creating New Memories
Sanchez mentions that many veterans hike the trail searching for ways to reconcile with the ghosts of the horrors they’ve witnessed. Though there’s no way to eliminate the bad memories that haunt their past, he said that hiking the trail is an opportunity to experience new things and create new, better memories. Not that the bad will ever go away, but they might eventually be replaced.
A New Life of Service and Adventure
After witnessing the beauty of the Appalachians and experiencing the love and kindness of the hiking community, Sanchez solemnly shared, “I served this country for over 30 years and I finally get to see the land I defended. I’m glad I’m getting a chance to know her. Everything I experienced was worth it”.
After completing the AT, Sanchez plans to move back to his hometown of El Paso where he will channel his inner entrepreneur and set up a small business. In the meantime, he continues to chip away at the miles between himself and Mount Katahdin, passing Duncannon, PA in mid-July. With over half the trail complete, there is no doubt in my mind that he will complete the rest of his epic Warrior Expeditions adventure.
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