As we celebrate Veterans and Veterans Day, Sean Gobin is one Marine who deserves recognition for healing vets by getting them to walk in his footsteps.
By PTSDJournal Staff
Sean Gobin was ready for the next phase of his life, he just didn’t know how he was going 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. Undoubtedly, deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan prepared them for this journey.
Gobin quickly realized during the hike that he had no personal plan to heal his mind from three deployments. 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. Little did Gobin, whose soldier life began as an infantry rifleman in 1994, 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.
He and Silvers, who also served as an armor officer in Afghanistan, didn’t have such support on their first journey. Silvers said he decided to join Gobin on the initial trek after listening to his fellow soldier talk about his lifelong dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail during missions overseas. Silvers figured it would be a way to shake off the effects of multiple deployments and ease back into civilian life back home. 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,” said Gobin, a West Kingston, R.I., native and a 2001 graduate of the University of Mississippi. “As we hiked I was able 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 finding employment, adjusting to civilian life and putting combat behind them. He knew many soldiers would come home with 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. A Mayo Clinic study revealed symptoms of PTSD can begin months after a traumatic incident or might suddenly appear years later, triggered by an unrelated event. Traits 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 2 million American servicemen and women who served during two decades of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan are seeking solutions to cope with the symptoms of PTSD. Studies from the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank, suggest that one-third of veterans — over 300,000 — suffer from PTSD or combat-related depression.
The need for action is stark. A veterans’ hotline started in 2007 receives hundreds of thousands of calls a year. Ten percent of those calls are 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,” he 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 had 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.” By the time the duo returned to Virginia, Silvers decided he was not interested in working on Warrior Hike. Gobin couldn’t shake 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.”
That’s when Warrior Hike became Warrior Exhibitions.
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.
Dietrich’s connection to Gobin 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.” About a year after they began talking, the two took a short hike together.
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. “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 hiking in the wilderness is useful is it offers participants alternatives. If veterans need time alone, they can hike alone. If they prefer 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 a 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.”
Gobin’s effort did not go unnoticed. In 2015 he was nominated as a CNN Hero of the Year. Since that first hike sponsorship of Warrior Exhibitions, the nonprofit he started to oversee the enterprise has grown to 44 companies. The support allows Gobin to provide hikers with high-quality equipment and even a $300 stipend to purchase supplies while they are out on the trails. The organization has added treks through 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).
“It was a happenstance calling, but it’s become my life,” Gobin said. “I feel it is my moral responsibility to build a sustainable, nonprofit program to help veterans overcome the effects of PTSD that could prevent them from living their lives to the fullest.”