I am excited to announce that I’ll be hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in its entirety from Mexico to Canada this year! In April, I’ll begin my journey from Campo, California with the goal of reaching the Canadian border sometime in September. It’s been a dream of mine for some time and now it’s finally a reality. I want to share with you not only my journey, but why I’m deciding to spend my summer hiking over 2600 miles.
Why Hike the PCT?
About two years ago, I came across an organization called Warrior Hike whose mission is to provide Veterans struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with a source of healing by sponsoring them on long distance expeditions. The program began with just the Appalachian Trail and within just a few years has grown to include the Triple Crown of long distance hiking (Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and the Pacific Crest Trail) along with several other state trails. The idea is that Veterans hiking these trails can spend up to six months “walking off the war” with the intent being that by the time they’re done, they’ve processed some of what they’ve experienced during their time in the military. The time spent in the backcountry with fellow Veterans provides an opportunity to reset with minimal external pressures.
Having served two tours in Iraq with the Marine Corps during the height of the war, I know what it’s like to come home to a world that no longer feels the same. Once a service member becomes a Veteran, the world they once knew is stripped from them and they’re left having to sort out their experiences on their own in a civilian culture they’re no longer accustom to. Some do this with success while others, sadly do not. I saw Warrior Hike as an opportunity to give back to the culture I came from and soon found myself volunteering as the Pacific Crest Trail Coordinator.
My duties were simple; organize over twenty weekend stops for about six hikers by linking them up with American Legions and VFW’s all along the trail. These weekend supporters would pick our hikers up at the trail heads, provide food and lodging, then send them on their way up the trail the next day. For the past two years, it’s been an honor serving in this role, but my desire to hike the trail myself continued to grow.
This past summer, I decided I’d apply for the program myself. Though I’ve been separated from the Marines since 2007, I know there are experiences that I have not yet come to terms with. I consider myself one of the fortunate ones who had a support system in place when I returned home to friends and family, but even at that, I still struggled to redefine who and what I was.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is real and it impacts the mental health of our Veterans. Just because one service member may have had a “crazier” experience than another doesn’t mean one is any less susceptible to the symptoms of PTSD. It can be the most minor of events that can send a Veteran into a downward spiral.
In full transparency to my audience, I’ve taken personal steps to address the effects of PTSD in my own life. Are there men and women out there who have seen and done more than I have? Absolutely, but that doesn’t negate any of my experiences. I was 20 years old when I stepped foot in Iraq for the first time and only 21 when I did so the second time. Looking back now at almost 33 years of age, I see how young we all were and how the smallest of moments had such a major impact on my life afterward.
A few years ago, after being told I was cold and distant to family and friends, I decided to seek help by visiting the Vet Center. It was extremely uncomfortable at first and I regularly downplayed my service in Iraq. I recall the first time my counselor read back to me what I had covered in our session and my heart began to sink. For years, I had been completely disregarding these events and as a result, I was numb to many of my emotions. I laughed at situations that weren’t at all funny as a coping mechanism and refused to believe what I saw was anything worthy of mention. I couldn’t identify the most basic of human emotions because I had none. For the next year or so, I learned a lot about PTSD and the effects it had on my life both big and small. It’s been eye opening process and I’m in a much better place today because of it.
I am hiking the PCT in 2017 with Warrior Hike to gain closure. I am hiking the PCT to clear my head. I am hiking the PCT to show others who might be struggling with their transition to civilian life that it doesn’t have to be so difficult. Getting out of the military was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done because of how sudden it is and how ill prepared I was. Every Veteran I’ve spoken to about their transition will admit to some extent that it’s not easy to redefine what “normal” is. Getting out is an emotional pain in the ass, but it’s doable. It requires patience, but most of all it requires internal honesty about the struggle. You’d think that getting out of the military would be easy for us, but it’s not. It’s hard to leave your friends who became family and a world that provided you with some of the most intense, yet incredible experiences of your life.
I’m one of the lucky ones. My support system was there for me when I needed them the most, but there are Veterans out there who are not so lucky. Some of them continue to struggle for years after separating from the military and some unfortunately give up and end their lives. For this reason, I am hiking the PCT in 2017. I’ll hike for myself, and I’ll hike for those who never had the chance to walk off the war.
My Plans for 2017
For those interested, I want to share my hike with you. In the coming weeks, I’ll be adding a PCT specific blog that will be updated while I’m on the trail. It likely won’t be lengthy posts, but I sincerely hope you’ll tune in and follow along as I make my way from Mexico to Canada. My goals for the PCT are simple; to physically and mentally walk off my war. Along the way I hope to learn more about myself, the ins and outs of Thru Hiking, and to become better connected to the backcountry. It’s going to be a challenge both mentally and physically, but I’m eager for the opportunity and cannot wait to know the person I’ll be when it’s complete.
If you know someone recently separated from the military who may be struggling, don’t stand by and watch it happen. Talk to them and ask them how they’re doing. Be a pillar of support and let them know you care.
If you’re a Veteran reading this and you’re struggling with processing your time in combat or with your transition to civilian life, know that you’re not alone and you’re not broken or stupid. What you’ve seen and done has significant long term effects and the sooner you give yourself over to healing, the sooner life will make more sense. It’s not easy talking about it, but you’ll find that when you do, you’ll begin to make some great strides in life. I highly encourage you to contact your local Vet Center for free counseling, reach out to a friend who might understand, or even email me if those other two options feel weird. Give it a shot for a few months and learn a thing or two about how your brain works. Mental health is just as important as physical health so do yourself a favor and take steps to be as healthy as you can be, not only for yourself, but for those around you who rely on you and love you.
To all Vets – thank you for your service. No matter what you did or currently do, know that it’s appreciated and this country owes a debt of gratitude.
P.S. Special thanks to Warrior Expeditions and my current employer for providing this opportunity. I can’t thank you enough for such a great gift!