This Saturday at Atagahi Park in Connestee Falls the Warrior Hike program is holding a fundraiser for its new "Walk off the War" Mountains to Sea trail "through hike" scheduled next year.
The Warrior Hike program is an outdoor therapy program for veterans, which uses long-distance hiking as a way to transition from their deployment experience.
Sean Gobin founded the Warrior Hike program in 2012 after he retired from the U.S. Marine Corps as a captain. Gobin immersed himself in hiking the Appalachian Trail, which he said helped him move on with his life after struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Gobin was part of the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, was later on the ground in Fajullah and spent most of 2011 in Afghanistan.
"Walk off the War" was inspired in part by the first-ever Appalachian Trail (AT) through hiker Earl Shaffer, who, after World War II ended, told a friend that he was going to "walk off the war" to work out the sights, sounds and losses that he had experienced.
"I was struggling quite a bit in 2012," said the 40-year-old Gobin. "I hiked the AT. It was really therapeutic and healthy. It was so incredibly helpful. I figured it would be beneficial to other veterans as well.
"It was a yin-yang experience, as it was grueling and tough. My whole body hurt, but reaching the vistas and taking in the serenity of the mountains and the outpouring of support from the people I met on the way helped re-establish my faith in humanity as I coped to deal with the worst people in humanity."
"Walk Off the War" started on the AT in 2013 and has since expanded to six other through hiking trails: the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, the Florida Trail, the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin and the Arizona Trail.
A through hike is an extended trip on a designated route. Logistically, the hike is predetermined on the set route, with food drops typically established along the way. Coordination with volunteers (family, friends) is needed so that hikers are not carrying large amounts of food on their backs.
The AT is the longest through hike on the East Coast.
"We had 14 veterans on the trail in 2014, and since the beginning, we've had a total of 71 veterans complete the trails that we have supported," said Gobin.
This year, Gobin has added the Warrior Paddle program, a paddle trip that will run the length of the Mississippi River and allow veterans who could not physically participate in a through hike.
Gobin said that it's hard for veterans to cope, and the combined reality of dwindling resources for veterans makes it even more difficult to find the help they need.
"We all know the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) is over capacity and has been with all the people coming back," he said. "The two types of therapy are talk therapy and medication therapy, but those two types of therapy aren't necessarily one size that fits all. Some of them are looking for alternatives for that. The outdoors are a very viable and accessible form of therapy for them."
Veteran Sharon Smith echoes that sentiment.
Smith works as a physical therapist in Hendersonville and was on the first through hike of the AT with the Warrior Hike program.
"I don't take antidepressants anymore," said Smith, who was an Air Force combat medic. "The VA has to offer something besides medication. We need to use the resources we have. The VA has to start thinking out of the box."
Smith said she doesn't exactly know why the VA is so quick to medicate people.
"I think a lot of it is because people are coming back and they're so damaged," she said. "Antidepressants and anxiety medicine are what they have. I don't know why they try and throw medication at you. Then you're numb, and you can't process the things that you experienced. You're just numb to it. Being medicated and not actually being able to cognitively process it is not healthy, and is no way to move beyond it. That's what the hiking program is about, using nature as opposed to medication. Expanding your thinking instead of numbing it is what we're all about."
Last year, Smith scouted the route on the Mountains to Sea trail, a 1,100 mile hike from Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park to the Outer Banks on the coast of North Carolina.
Smith said they are trying to have hiking programs in every state because for a veteran's family a six-month commitment to a hike like the AT can feel like another deployment.
"(Mountains to Sea) includes 81 miles of walking up the beach on the Outer Banks," she said. "This year, I did 2,107 miles on the Pacific Crest but got stopped at Bridge of the Gods at the Oregon and Washington state line due to the wildfires out there. I did that with this year's Warrior Hike.
"The premise of it all is to use nature as a modality for healing. Getting on the trail with other veterans is healing. We have guys and girls who may have been at war on a Sunday and they're home on a Tuesday, so there's no transition. This is really beneficial for those people, so they can restart their lives. It's made a huge difference for me. Everyone's lives have completely changed because of the hike. While you're out there you can't do anything but heal."
Oskar Blues has donated a keg of beer for the event. There will also be barbecue and live music. The fundraiser will be held from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.
More information can be found about the program at warriorhike.org.