In 1948, three years after the end of World War II, an Army veteran from Pennsylvania named Earl Shaffer hiked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. No one had ever done that before.
Completing the Georgia-to-Maine trek in 124 days, Shaffer became the trail's first "thru-hiker." He took on the challenge, he said, as a way of recovering from his combat experiences and from the loss of a boyhood friend who had died in the Pacific. Shaffer said he wanted to "walk off the war."
More than 60 years later, the Shaffer legend has inspired a "walk off the war" program for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. It's called the Warrior Hike, created by two Marine captains who wanted to help veterans recover from the physical and psychological wounds of war.
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The Appalachian Trail offers a long, green bridge back to civilian life — challenging but therapeutic, busy but peaceful. The trail provides plenty of solitude, but also regular contact with other hikers, and it's close to small towns with veterans halls that make up a support network for the hiking warriors.
"You have a lot of time to think about your [combat] experiences," says Rob Carmel, a Maryland native whose retirement from the Army became effective in July, in the midst of his 2,185-mile Warrior Hike. "You're in the woods. There are no bombs, no bullets. ... You learn to come to terms with what you experienced in war."
Carmel was a sergeant major. In a 32-year career that began when he was 18 and living with his family in Baltimore County, Carmel served in Europe and Asia and had combat tours in Kuwait, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
He was in Kabul in 2012, assigned to the National Military Command Center, when three members of his unit were killed in so-called "insider attacks" while training Afghan security forces. One of the victims was a Maryland National Guard major from Baltimore County, Robert Marchanti; he had been serving as a mentor to Afghan national police.
"Major Marchanti was a real good person," Carmel says. "That incident changed the way we did our job because we lost a lot of trust we had for many Afghans."
When he thought about the end of his tour and looked ahead to retirement, Carmel thought about the Appalachian Trail. He always loved the outdoors — "I grew up in that time before computers and [video] games," he says — and he hiked years ago in Western Maryland. A member of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Carmel had a great notion to hike from Georgia to Maine when he returned home for good.
So it was a happy coincidence that, while making plans for his trip, he discovered the newly formed Warrior Hike. He applied for the program and was part of a group of veterans who mustered at Neel's Gap, in Georgia, in March.
Starting from Springer Mountain, Carmel set his own pace, and a brisk one, covering between 20 and 25 miles a day, from about 7 a.m. — after a daily breakfast of Pop Tarts and coffee — until sundown. He wore out seven pair of shoes between March and September. Aside from a break to attend his daughter's wedding in Texas, Carmel stayed on the trek all summer.
"The people along the trail, the older veterans we met, were incredible," Carmel says. "There were events for us at VFW halls and American Legion, the Marine Corps League. They put us up for the night and fed us, took us food shopping. We camped outside the American Legion hall in Front Royal, Va. Sometimes there would be a hotel. Three times we got steak and lobster."
Carmel was in good shape from his daily physical training in the Army. He was also determined. "I was thru-hiking," he says. "I had a drive to do it, to make my miles every day."
As he hiked, Carmel became reacquainted with the country he served.
"I never met anyone out there who seemed dangerous, you know?" he says, a reminder about where he was a year ago, and where Americans still die, in the nation's longest war. "There's a whole other society and culture out there on the trail. And people in the South were very different from people in the North, in the way they did things, the way they spoke."
Carmel reached the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine on Sept. 13. His wife, Catherine, met him there.
I asked Carmel, who lives in Olympia, Wash., what he took away from the Appalachian Trail. Had he really walked off the war?
"I'm better prepared to talk to civilians," he says. "I found another special place; the trail will always be part of me now. I feel closer to nature again, closer to people who, like me, want to guarantee that these places are there for our kids.
"And the war is over, at least for me. ... It's no longer in my head that I might have to go back."