Warrior Hike helps combat veterans heal

Story highlights

  • Iraq War veteran Sean Gobin's nonprofit, Warrior Hike, helps combat vets -- some with PTSD
  • Nominations are open for 2016 CNN Heroes
  • Watch "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute" now on CNNgo

Front Royal, Virginia (CNN)As a U.S. Marine tank commander, Sean Gobin endured many harrowing experiences: the invasion of Iraq, counterinsurgency missions in Fallujah and the training of Afghan army recruits. But he never had a chance to process any of it.

In 2012, Gobin left the military and convinced a war buddy to hike the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail with him. They used their journey to raise money for disabled veterans, but along the way, Gobin realized that the experience was also helping him.
    "Hiking eight hours a day, I was processing all of these experiences that I had put away," he said. "And I knew that there were other combat veterans that needed to do that."
    Helping veterans transition from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has become an important issue in recent years. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 11% to 20% of those who served now struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.
    Today, Gobin's nonprofit, Warrior Hike, provides combat veterans with all the equipment and supplies they need to complete long-distance hikes throughout the country. Ranging from two to six months, these journeys give veterans a chance to connect with nature and work through their issues while enjoying the camaraderie and support of other war veterans.
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    Gobin also organizes weekly trail town stops, where locals give the hikers a hot meal and a chance to take a shower and sleep in a real bed. These experiences help often-jaded veterans regain their faith in people and ease them into nonmilitary life.
    To date, more than 70 veterans have participated in the program.
    "Hiking the trail is like a reset button," Gobin said. "It helps you become a civilian again."
    CNN's Kathleen Toner talked with Gobin about his program. Below is an edited version of their conversation:
    CNN: I understand that you weren't the first veteran to find solace on the Appalachian Trail.
    Sean Gobin: After finishing my hike, I learned about a World War II veteran, Earl Shaffer, who served in the Pacific campaign with the Army. He had lost his best friend during that deployment, and after he returned home, he was struggling. So he told his friends and family that he was going to go "walk off the war." He then became the very first person to hike the entire Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.
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    In the olden days, an army marched home after a war, and it was a time to process what they'd been through. But now, because we live in the age of modern transportation, you can find yourself from the battlefield back in the United States within a matter of days. I was home from Afghanistan in 72 hours. It was very abrupt, and it's a really hard transition to be home after being deployed. So now Warrior Hike is essentially trying to replicate the act of walking home.
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    CNN: Is your program for veterans who are struggling with PTSD?
    Gobin: Veterans participating in our program are dealing with a wide range of issues. Some are coping with post-traumatic stress, while others are just trying to find their place in the world after serving in the military.
    When you decide to get out of the military, you get a five-day seminar, and that's it. Often you try to jump on the first job opportunity that arises and end up stocking shelves. You never really have time to process stuff, and if you don't, then it starts to fester and comes up as difficult behaviors.
    With the hike, you have time to process. If you're struggling with PTSD, it's not a cure, but it might help you manage it. And we let everyone in our program keep the gear so that the outdoors is a long-term coping mechanism for them.
    CNN: Who is eligible to participate in one of your hikes?
    Gobin: Any veteran that's served in a combat zone and has been honorably discharged is qualified to apply for the program. And I learned that a lot of veterans who have come home from previous deployments have never really transitioned, even as far back as Vietnam. They're still struggling, so we open it up to any combat veteran from any campaign.
    CNN: What's been the response?
    Gobin: I was surprised by how many veterans want to use the outdoors as a means to transition. When I first started Warrior Hike, I figured there might be three to five veterans crazy enough to want to do these six-month hikes. Last year, I had over 120 applications. This year, it's only June, and I've already got over 100 applications for next year.
    I'm also in the process of starting two other programs for veterans who have injuries and can't necessarily hike 2,000 miles. This July we're starting Warrior Paddle, which will let them canoe the length of the Mississippi River. And next year we hope to do Warrior Bike, a cross-country trip with adaptive bikes.
    One of the struggles veterans have when they come home is trying to find something do to that is important to them, that makes them excited to get up in the morning. For me, that's Warrior Hike.
    Want to get involved? Check out the Warrior Hike website at www.warriorhike.org and see how to help.