One Step at a Time: Veterans Hike the Mountains-to-Sea Trail – The Coastland Times

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Stephen Woofter and JB were strangers when they set out from Clingmans Dome, NC on May 25 to walk 1,200 miles across the state. On August 1, they ended their adventure atop Jockey’s Ridge as friends, gazing out over the Atlantic Ocean and looking back on 10 weeks of reflection and life changing.

Woofter and JB were selected to complete the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) by Warrior Expeditions, a nonprofit outdoor therapy program that helps veterans live out their wartime experiences through long-distance adventures. .

Woofter served in the United States Army for 11 years, then re-enlisted in the Air Force Reserve. While in the Air Force, he was deployed with the military in Afghanistan and Iraq. He served several units including the 82n/a In flight at Fort Bragg. In October, after 34 years, he will retire from the army and resume his life as a civilian.

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JB served as a combat engineer in the army from 1996 to 2005 and was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Warrior Expeditions selects men and women to participate in outdoor adventures – hiking, paddling and biking – and provides all necessary equipment and training. The organization was founded by Sean Gobin who, after returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, found personal restoration while hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2012.

“Historically, military units could spend months returning from war. During this journey, they would process and accept their experiences of war. But in today’s era of modern transportation, military personnel can find themselves back home days after serving in a combat zone,” the organization’s website explains (warriorexpeditions.org).

Warrior Expeditions seeks to offer this time of transition – hours, days and weeks and sometimes months of moments of calm, solitude, nature and beauty – to process their experiences of war.

With an estimated 10-30% of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), there is a great need for the many men and women who have looked after our nation’s security for many years of s finally take care of their own mental health. .

“We’ve used that word a lot – it’s an opportunity. It’s for a group, but it’s also very individualized. You challenge yourself mentally and physically and you come to understand some things,” JB said.

“There is therapy in time,” Woofter said. His voice cracks as he reflects on the trip. His reasons for making the trip are difficult to articulate, as they are for so many other veterans. “I know that one night I’ll be lying in bed and I’ll find all the right words.”

life on the trail

The men were up early on the trail, as much to catch the sunrise as to beat the heat. They slept in their own little tents and cooked their meals on a tiny Jetboil stove. They packed up all their stuff each morning and started, riding an average of 18 miles a day, and on some days reaching 22-24 miles.

“You have to play with the weather,” explained JB. “You can throw your stuff together and be ready to move before the sun comes up. I would not say that no day was the same, far from it. Am I going to boil water for coffee and oatmeal or just go in and stop a few hours later? »

They refilled their water bottles whenever clean water was available, sometimes using their water purifiers when drinking from unknown streams or springs. Woofter remembers using his purifier on a mud puddle once during the trip. The food got monotonous pretty quickly. The men ate dry camp food, which was eaten simply by adding water. “We ate a lot of packaged tuna and chicken. I don’t want packaged tuna for a long time,” laughed Woofter.

The 1,200-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail is divided into 18 segments, starting just over the Tennessee border in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains. The trail dips south before heading north to Asheville, then winds almost to the Virginia border before zigzagging towards the outskirts of Greensboro. The trail follows a path to Raleigh, staying just north of all major towns, then hikers take a break from the walking journey and paddle 169 miles along the Neuse River past New Bern. The last segments of the trail resume hiking for the final stretch north along the coast on NC-12 and up to Jockey’s Ridge State Park.

Along the road, they passed wildlife, stepped over snakes, and watched bald eagles soar overhead. The MST covers some of the most stunning landscapes and varied topography in North Carolina. For Woofter, there were a few standouts.

“We camped in a meadow off Blue Ridge Parkway. I think it was Doughton Park, maybe a federal park. It was wonderful. The sunset and sunrise there were awesome, in the northern mountains,” he recalls.

“In the center [of the state], it gets easy – Hanging Rock State Park, Pilot Mountain State Park. You can see for now, the earth is getting flatter. The Falls Lake area was beautiful…it was like walking on a carpet,” he added.

Although their surroundings are a delight to their eyes, their bodies have taken a toll on them. Woofter said: “Lots of sore feet and backs, every day. The director of Warrior Expeditions said it would be around two weeks [to adjust]. We didn’t find that at all. We found that we were always in pain, including this morning [after completing the hike] while we clopinions. Maybe when you’re 25. When you’re 50 and 55, it never goes away.

Friendships Forged

Warrior Expeditions selects a group of hikers to travel together for their trip. There are no rules – you don’t have to stay together, eat together or camp together – but companionship is available to those who want to spend time with other veterans who understand their experiences as no one else can.

JB and Woofter started their journey with two other men. At that time, Woofter walked alone most of the time. The other two men gave up before the group left the mountains.

“[JB] and I hadn’t spoken much before. When the other people quit, he and I just bonded and were together the rest of the way. We spent hours without speaking and sometimes we were separated by a distance and it did not matter. But we have always camped in the same place. The VFW in Hillsboro asked us if we were getting along and it freaked us out because we had never thought about it before,” Woofter recalled.

Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) across North Carolina support the men and women who hike with Warrior Expeditions. Shortly after the start of the hike, the Cherokee VFW cooked a big dinner for the hikers, and that was just the start of the support from the VFW and community members or “trail angels” who seek to bless and encourage hikers.

“The beauty of humanity was awe-inspiring,” Woofter said. “People who don’t know you take you home, cook you a big dinner, let you wash clothes, sleep in air conditioning. It was amazing. Amazing that these people do that.

He told the story of an older man in a tough community who welcomed them into his trailer and brought out cold Pepsis, Moon Pies and candy bars and invited them to rest for a few minutes in the shade . “He told us that he had been a farmer all his life. He knew we were hot and he wanted us to have something. I know he didn’t have much, but he gave us the best he had. It reminded Woofter of his deployments, his visits to villages and the very sweet tea offered by the locals: “They were very poor, but these people were willing to give up a basic product to make us feel at home.”

Simple kindness can change a person. The hikers were told they would return with a new appreciation for humanity, and they did. “We asked a couple to take us to their house and feed us, and they said, ‘We’re going to our son’s for Father’s Day. Do you want to come?’ The beauty of the people was impressive. It was amazing.”

In Nags Head, the generosity continued: a member of VFW Post 10950 coordinated with Interfaith Community Outreach to provide JB and Woofter with a free rental home in Nags Head the day before their final hike; Pigman’s barbecue offered them lunch; the Outer Banks Brewing Station provided dinner; an employee of Jennette’s Pier bought them shirts because she was inspired by their trip. “These are the kind of people we had the privilege of meeting. They didn’t know us, we look a bit scruffy. That’s the kind of incredible humanity we encountered,” Woofter remarked.

Next steps

Both men want to share the knowledge they have gained with other veterans or other people in their communities. For JB, although he knows it will take some time to process the hike, he is looking for ways to give back more.

Woofter is still figuring out what’s next for him. After retiring from the Air Force in October, he plans to continue volunteering at Shenandoah National Park and his church. “My wife encourages me to teach some basic survival skills. Maybe this hike is an introduction to it… Maybe I’ll help other people who want to hike. I see a lot of mistakes made by people overestimating what they can do, especially in the summer. They don’t realize that when you come down that mountain, you have to come back up.

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