Last summer I spent a week hiking along the Appalachian Trail through my home state of New Jersey with three of my sisters. As could be expected, we met many interesting people along our hike. Our encounters ranged from pot-heads to rugged adventures, and even included a couple convinced they were playing out a real life version of The Hunger Games. Perhaps the most intriguing of all were a group of veterans hiking the trail as part of a program called Warrior Hike.
How I learned of Warrior Hike
We met the Warriors at a place called Rutherford Shelter, about 4 miles south of High Point State Monument (or about 2 miles on the CampingJay Scale.) Because we were hiking short distances each day (8-12 miles), we usually arrived pre-selected camp day sometime mid-afternoon. Through-hikers, who usually trek around 20 miles per day start to drift in around evening, some arriving after dark. They are generally quiet as they go about making dinner and setting up their shelters.
We arrived at Rutherford Shelter for our 4th night on the trail around three o’clock in the afternoon. A while later arrived a grizzly old man on his second through-hiking attempt. Next into the site were a middle-aged pastor and his teenage daughter, section-hiking New Jersey northbound (we were heading south.) At about five o’clock, an olive-drab clad hiker with a thick black beard pounced into the site proclaiming “What the hell was that?” (He was referring to the 400 foot descent trail from the Appalachian along the ridge above down to the campsite.) This was the beginning of our evening with the Warriors.
Over the next half hour, one bearded warrior after another arrived at the campsite, much like dwarfs arriving for an unexpected tea party. Like most hikers, some were grumpy, some were cheerful, and others were pretty solemn. Unlike most through-hikers, they were loud and very happy to share their story.
What is Warrior Hike?
Warrior Hike is program designed to help returning veterans acclimate back into peace-time society. Earl Schaffer, a World War II veteran, inspired the program when in 1948 he decided to “walk off the war” by hiking the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, becoming the first person to do so. According to their website (www.warriorhike.com), traditional military campaigns ended with a lengthy journey home, allowing returning soldiers to work out what they had just experienced. Today, the journey from Iraq or Afghanistan by air can be as short as a day, after which vets are thrust back into a community that doesn’t know exactly how to help them.
Participants in the program are get the opportunity to hike one of America’s three long distance trails: The Appalachian, The Continental Divide, or the Pacific Crest. They are supplied and equipped by generous donors and corporate sponsors. Along the way, they support each other in their journeys , not just along the trail, but home from the war. They take part in organized events with local veterans’ groups and other programs who host them for dinner, and get a chance to share their experiences with others.
I was touched by the program and believe this is a great way to help our nation’s heroes adapt to life at home. Since 2001, over 2.5 million veterans have returned home from Iraq, Afghanistan, or other fronts in the Global War on Terror. Over 20% of these are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and all are in need of some degree of counseling or therapy. Supporting programs like this is an important way for Americans to pay back a debt to our troops for defending our freedom.
Support Warrior Hike!
If you would like to help support the Warrior Hike Program, you can make donations online or through the mail. They accept Pay-Pal, so supporting them is very easy. If you buy a Warrior Hike t-shirt for $20, $10 will go directly towards supporting this great program. You can find more information at www.warriorhike.com/donate.