Sean Gobin was ready for the next phase of his life and was in a hurry to get there. He and a buddy, Mark Silvers, were making the 2,158-mile hike of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine before starting the MBA program at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Experienced hikers give themselves six months to handle the trail; Gobin and Silvers had four-and-a-half to get to Maine and back to Charlottesville in time for class. They were not experienced hikers, but they are Marines. Surely, deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan prepared them for this journey.
Gobin had no personal plan to help him heal from three deployments. Little did he know that his efforts to rejoin life at home would turn into a calling to help struggling veterans find peace and perspective in their post-combat lives.
Gobin began as an infantry rifleman in 1994. The West Kingston, RI, native graduated from the University of Mississippi in 2001 and received his commission. As an armor officer, Gobin served as a platoon commander in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and again in 2005. In 2011, he helped train Afghan National Security Forces in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
He and Silvers, who had also served as an armor officer in Afghanistan, were friends. During missions Gobin often talked about his lifelong dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail. Silvers decided to join him for the trek. He figured it would be a way to shake off the effects of three deployments, ease into life back home, and do some good by raising a few dollars to help returning veterans. They were discharged on March 13, 2012, and began hiking on March 14.
“I thought hiking the trail would provide the most therapeutic way to re-enter society again,” Gobin said. “This helped me open up more and use the time and open spaces as we hiked to come to terms with everything I went through, especially coming back to the states right off the battlefield with no time or space to decompress and transition. We stopped at Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion halls to share our stories, and let them know a new generation of servicemen and servicewomen were going to need support when they returned.”
Gobin wasn’t just talking about veterans needing assistance in putting combat behind them or settling into life as civilians. He knew that many of his fellow veterans would come home with a medical condition—Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to the Veterans Administration, the first diagnosis of PTSD was in 1980, the result of studying soldiers returning from Vietnam. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of PTSD can begin months after a traumatic incident or might suddenly appear years later, triggered by an unrelated event. Symptoms include intrusive memories, avoidance of even minor stresses, negative moods and thoughts, and changes in emotions. Veterans of the First Gulf War, and the more than two million American service men and women who served during nearly 15 years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, are seeking solutions to cope with the symptoms of PTSD. Studies from the RAND Corporation, a non-profit think tank, suggest that one-third of veterans—some 300,000—suffer from PTSD or combat-related depression.
The need for action is stark. An average of 22 veterans commit suicide every day in the U.S. A help line for veterans started in 2007 received 9,379 calls that year. The number jumped to 67,350 in 2008. Last year, 287,051 calls were placed. Ten percent of those calls came from family members of veterans trying to understand how to help their struggling loved ones. When Gobin set out on his therapeutic hike, he wasn’t thinking about numbers. “We were trying to decompress and come to terms with what the war did to us mentally and emotionally,” Gobin said. “I came to realize that during the first third of the hike I was in survival mode, but once we figured out the logistics of camping and hiking, I enjoyed the experience of meeting people and getting comfortable in my skin again.” By the time he got to upstate New York, the idea of Warrior Hike started germinating in Gobin’s mind. Intrigued by its fundraising opportunities, he began to put together the blueprint of a business plan.
“When I started at the business school I didn’t plan to move forward with the project,” Gobin said, “but I got a call from Appalachian Trail Conservancy and they said they wanted to build a program.”
Gobin believed his military training in logistics was important in launching Warrior Hike. His keen eye for detail and focus on following up on new opportunities were traits he said were critical to his success. By the time the duo returned to Virginia, Silvers decided he was not interested in working on Warrior Hike. Gobin thought constantly about what the hike had meant to him. “I knew I wanted to be involved in some sort of entrepreneurial endeavor,” he said. “At the same time, I kept hearing from people we’d met on the hike and was amazed at the bond I’d developed with them. The more I thought about what the hike could do for other veterans, I knew that I had found a calling, personally and professionally.”
ZACHARY DIETRICH ENLISTED in the U.S. Marine Corps in 2003. A year later the Scott County, Indiana, native retired with an honorable discharge after a training accident kept him from active duty. He earned his B.A. in political science from Indiana University and a Master’s Degree in clinical psychology at Georgia Southern University where he is currently finishing his Ph.D. in clinical psychology.
Dietrich’s connection to Warrior Hike began with a casual conversation. “I was chatting with a fellow grad student who is also an avid hiker,” Dietrich said. “I was telling him that I believed the physiological growth that occurs during hiking long distances could benefit combat veterans diagnosed with PTSD in ways that traditional therapy and psychopharmacology could not. I then said I’d like to start a program on the Knobstone Trail—my ‘home trail’ in Southern Indiana—for combat veterans suffering from PTSD.”
Dietrich bounced names around and eventually came up with “Warrior Hike Home.” He went to Google the phrase and the Warrior Hike website popped up. Dietrich instantly emailed Gobin. “Our first phone conversation lasted something like two or three hours,” he says. “We talked about all the possibilities. I still have the notes from that call.” About a year after they began talking, the two took a short hike together.
That’s when Warrior Hike began to go from an idea to reality. Dietrich, who was still a graduate student and not a licensed psychologist, knew they needed someone to sign off on the research. He searched for a licensed psychologist willing to take on the idea. He found his man in Dr. Jeff Klibert, assistant professor of clinical and counseling psychology at Georgia Southern. Klibert was intrigued although he did not have time for full involvement. He helped get the approval of the school’s ethics board. He also made the key connection to Dr. Shauna Joye, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at Georgia Southern.
“It was her idea to spend as much time hiking with the guys as we did,” Dietrich said.
Dr. Joye is a six-year veteran of the U.S. Air Guard, who ended her career as a staff sergeant. She embraced Dietrich’s calling and the pair have spent days and nights with Warrior Hike on the Appalachian Trail, starting on Blood Mountain in northern Georgia.
“Speaking from my own experience, in the military we simply don’t talk about weakness in any way, shape, or form,” Joye said. “Right or wrong, it’s a stigma. Servicemen and women think, ‘I should be able to handle this, I should be strong.’ ”
She believes that one reason the Warrior Hike is effective is because it offers alternatives for participants. If veterans need time alone, they can hike alone. If another prefers to hike with civilians, they can do that. At the end of each day, Dietrich said gathering by campfires offers the chance to simply enjoy conversation.
“While they are on the trail the vets are free from real-world stresses,” Joye said. “They can simply decompress in a very non-demanding environment. We are there for them, whether during the hike or after they’ve completed their journey. We met up with them in Georgia, and then in Virginia. When they saw us in Virginia, they even joked, ‘Hey, the shrinks are here!’ That was a good sign. There is real value in this approach and Sean deserves credit for the work he is doing.” Dietrich is equally excited about the prospects. He said the goal is to show the scientific community there is merit in what Warrior Hike and similar wilderness experiences can deliver veterans in the form of coping with war. “Those are two lofty goals and will require much more research, but it’s an important start,” he says.
Gobin’s star is moving, too. Warrior Hike has added the Pacific Crest Trail (southern California border to the Washington/Canada line) and the Continental Divide Trail (southern New Mexico to the Idaho/Canada line) to the selection of hikes, bringing the opportunity to those who might not be able to journey to the East Coast to tackle the Appalachian Trail. Gobin has found a variety of partners to outfit veterans with the proper equipment.
To date, 41 veterans have completed or are in the middle of their hikes. Gobin said he is also close to establishing Warrior Hike chapters in North Carolina, Texas, Illinois, Missouri, Florida, and Arizona.
“It was a happenstance calling, but it’s become my life,” he said. “I feel it is my moral responsibility to build a sustainable, nonprofit program to help veterans overcome effects of PTSD that could prevent them from living their lives to the fullest.”
Agencies including the National Forestry Service want to be involved now, and Gobin hopes they will be able to allocate funds to support the initiative.
WITH EVERY STEP, literal or organizational, Gobin continues to seize the momentum he needs to succeed. An introvert by nature, he said his first hike helped him become himself. “This helped me open up more and use the time and open spaces as we hiked to come to terms with everything I went through,” Gobin said.
It has been a while since his first hike, and Gobin is no longer in a hurry. He’s found the direction for his life—a direction he hopes others will follow.