After 12 years and three combat tours with the Marine Corps, Sean Gobin decided he needed a therapeutic activity – which turned out to be all 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
"I got out in the spring of 2012, and before starting grad school that fall, I decided to check off a bucket list item and hike all 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail," said Gobin, founder of Warrior Expeditions. "While I was on the trail, I kind of had an epiphany about how therapeutic the experience was which spurred the idea that doing long distance hikes could also be beneficial to other veterans that were coming home from the wars."
And, it turned out, Gobin wasn't the first veteran to have that epiphany.
"I found out after my hike that the very first person to through-hike the Appalachian Trail was a World War II veteran," Gobin said. "He came back from the war and told his friends and family that he needed to walk the war out of his system."
The following fall, Gobin and Warrior Expeditions were supplying resources, education, and guidance to veterans interested in embarking on through-hikes of the AT. Now, the non-profit screens 400 applicants a year. Of those 400, the non-profit has the resources to send roughly 40 veterans out onto the trails.
"We spend a week with each group of veterans at the beginning of each trail doing a training and education orientation package where we teach them how to use all the gear; hiking, biking, paddling techniques; basic problem solving; logistics," Gobin said. "And then we shadow them up the trail for the first week to make sure they're set up for success. And then we peel off and travel to the next trail and support the next group of veterans."
Gobin explained that veterans experience three major benefits while out on the trail; the decompression of time and space in nature, the camaraderie of fellow veterans on the trails, and the help of community supporters along the trail.
"With each trail, we have people who are located along the trails typically every 3 to 5 days who are available to take our veterans off the trail and host them for a night," said Gobin. "That interaction with community supporters really helps to reestablish that basic faith in humanity that you lose along the way dealing with the worst of humanity in combat scenarios."
Between community supporters, the close bonds veterans form with fellow hikers, and the three to six months of immersive nature that comes with through-hiking – veterans return from the trails ready to take on the next phase of life.