Combat veterans on long trail to wellness

By Debbie Teofilo
Special to the Sun

Among the hundreds of hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) this season are six special men who were chosen for a program to hike from Mexico to Canada for their own health and for advancing the study of how wilderness therapy can improve the lives of other combat veterans like them.

Jonathan Grant and William Searle are among a Warrior Hike veterans group who were assisted over the past two weeks by the Lake Isabella VFW Post 7665 with transportation, meals, and lodging support when they left the trail at Walker Pass to get supplies and rest. They are part of the non-profit Warrior Expeditions outdoor therapy program that helps returning combat veterans come to terms with their wartime experiences so they can better reintegrate back into civilian life.

Photo by Debbie Teofilo / Special to the Sun
Jonathan Grant on the Pacific Crest Trail.

All six veterans started their months-long 2,650-mile hike on April 9 near the Mexican border in San Diego. Warrior Expeditions and their sponsors provide them with equipment, clothing, and a monthly $300 stipend to purchase supplies. The organization also makes arrangements for community groups to support them every 100 miles (approximately five days apart) along the route. Grant smiled when he said the company founder, war veteran Sean Gobin, shadows each hiking group on the trail for the first five days, and considering there have been annual hikes on seven other long distance trails in the United States since 2013, the founder has apparently set a record with Winnebago for putting the most miles on his RV.

After arriving at the first stop together, each of the six veterans began hiking at his own pace while keeping in touch electronically, with the first to arrive in an area giving information to the others about available food, water supplies, and other available resources. The men also rely on the kindness of other hikers, PCT “Trail Angels,” and community supporters such as VFW and American Legion posts along the way.

Searle stated that serving in war zones in the Middle East had made him cynical and untrusting of others. “It’s refreshing to see the altruism of others with no one expecting anything in return. This selflessness is restoring my faith in people in general,” he said with emotion.

According to an August 2017 article in U.S. News & World Report, two clinical psychologists are studying the effects of wilderness therapy on veterans participating in Wilderness Expeditions. An initial pilot study indicated that the intense physical exercise alleviated anxiety, and the new bonds they established with other veterans and charitable people along the way helped them more easily reconnect when back in civilian life. The psychologists conduct a health survey of the veterans before and after the hike, and send them weekly therapy messages by email.

In addition to these meaningful social interactions, it is the solitude and wide open spaces on the trail that allow the veterans to think through their combat traumas and try to find peace. “My world on the trail is only going at 2-1/2 miles per hour, so I have lots of time to think,” Grant described. “My biggest concern is just where my next water spot is.”

After they reach trail’s end at the Canadian border in mid- to late-September, Grant and Searle look forward to continuing their lives with renewed energy.

Grant discovered his interest in the medical field during combat medic training and earned a B.S. in Nursing directly after returning home from his service as a Navy SEAL. Since he had no time off between his 26-year military service and a job in the civilian world, a hospital allowed him to take a leave of absence for his PCT journey. He will rejoin his family in Virginia, including his 5-year-old son, who asked him to bring home a video of Bigfoot on the trail.

Army veteran Searle is looking forward to visiting with his family near the 1,600 mile marker on the PCT at Redding, Calif., before continuing to the end of the trail. He just completed his A.A. degree but put his schooling on hold until after his Warrior Hike, which he describes as an amazing experience. He has plans to complete a B.S. in Forestry so he can work outdoors. Because he loves to read and write, he may consider writing a memoir of his experiences.

Photo by Debbie Teofilo / Special to the Sun
William Searle at the Lake Isabella VFW Post 7665, which provided resources and camaraderie during their rest stop after reaching the Walker Pass trailhead.

Even though these men started the PCT Warrior Hike as a band of brothers, most of the journey will be made as individuals, each finding his own way. This program shows them that wherever they go in their lives, many people in the civilian world will have their backs, too.