Sean Gobin’s Trail to Recovery

A former Marine in Afghanistan came home and transformed a nature hike into a path of recovery for fellow veterans.

Making their way up the steep trail, ten combat veterans breath heavily under the weight of their gear which is an all too familiar feeling. Except this time is no one shooting at them. Instead they focus their thoughts on healing from their wartime experiences. As they reach the peak of this particular mountain, the forest opens up to a breathtaking view of the valley below. Much like how bootcamp will prepare you for war, hiking all 2,185 miles of the Appalachian Trail will prepare you to return home.

The War Within

Warriors all, they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition affecting those who have experienced or witnessed extreme traumatic events during wartime or in combat and are unable to get past it. In World War I, it was labeled “shell shock” and after World War II, “combat fatigue” among other monikers spouted by the medical community for a condition they knew little of.

Sufferers are plagued by flashbacks and nightmares combined with sadness, fear, and a disconnect from humanity. Returning to the homeland and adjusting to the lives they once led can prove to be a huge challenge to overcome for both them and their families. PTSD can be difficult to diagnose, and many sufferers are unable to receive appropriate treatment. A stigma is often attached to them affecting their prospects for employment. How will they adjust to civilian life? Who will save our saviors?

One man, Sean Gobin, heeded the call.

Need for Healing

Gobin is the founder and executive director of Warrior Expeditions which offers outdoor therapy programs for veterans battling PTSD and other conditions caused during their service in wartime. Gobin’s innovative program proves to be a saving grace for these veterans. Since 2001, over 2.5 million soldiers have come back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, nearly 20% of veterans who served struggle with the disorder.

Gobin understands the transition is not always smooth. “All this trauma makes its way to the surface when we come back home, which is why you see an epidemic of PTSD.” During their journey, Warrior Expeditions veterans get to enjoy a sense of purpose again with the camaraderie of fellow veterans all while rediscovering the country’s natural beauty and restoring their faith in humanity.

A Soldier’s Heart

Sean Gobin in Washington D.C. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy honors the Warrior Hike “Walk Off The War” Program during the 2014 Leaders in Conservation Awards Gala.

As a young man, Gobin enlisted in the Marine Corps. He began his career as an Infantry Rifleman in 1994, receiving his commission in 2001 after his graduation from the University of Mississippi. Iraqi Freedom called on him to serve as a platoon commander both in 2003 and 2005. Not missing a beat in the defense of our country, he acted as a trainer to the Afghan National Security Forces during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2011.

When forces ousted Saddam Hussein, he was there. When our soldiers fought in Fallujah, he was there. And afterwards, in spite of all that, he achieved a master’s degree in Business Administration from the University of Virginia.

Pathway to Enlightenment

It was during his third tour in Afghanistan, that he planned a hike once he returned to the U.S. In 2012, he and a friend walked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail to raise donations for wounded veterans. They raised $50,000 and realized that the physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits gained from the trek had to be shared with others. “And it ended up being an incredibly therapeutic and cathartic experience,” Gobin says. They partnered with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to provide hiking experiences for combat veterans transitioning back into civilian life.

The Appalachian Trail is located in the eastern United States stretching from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. This 2,185-mile trail is the longest continuous footpath in the United States. Gobin experienced the benefits of taking on and accomplishing this long-distance feat. He found peace on the trail, discovering he was able to process the trauma of war that would have been impossible to do otherwise.

Sharing the benefits was a natural next step for him. The following year, Gobin founded Warrior Expeditions, taking veterans on the same trek. “It was a really transformational experience for me personally, and I decided right away that I wanted to help other veterans experience the same thing,” he says.

Coincidentally, the healing effects of the trail that Gobin experienced had been discovered by another soldier long before. This soldier was the first person to ever hike the entire length, from Georgia to Maine. He was Earl Shaffer, who after returning from war in the Pacific in 1948,  decided to “walk off the war,” and so he did.

A Journey of Recovery

Warrior Expeditions restores a sense of camaraderie these warriors left behind on the battlefield. The program provides outdoor equipment and clothing, a monthly $300 re-supply stipend, and community support in the forms of rides, lodging, and meals during the 3- to 6-month expedition at no cost to the veteran.

Besides the Appalachian Trail, there are now long-distance hiking expeditions offered all over the United States. There is even a 4,229-mile long Trans-America Warrior Bike Trail stretching across ten states from Virginia to Oregon. Another option is the 2,320-mile long Mississippi River Warrior Paddle crossing through ten states from Minnesota to Louisiana.  Each experience aids in the transition of these men and women back into society by re-establishing a sense of faith in others and providing a goal to concentrate on.

A research study over a 4-year period was performed on the effects of Warrior Expeditions’ long-term wilderness experiences on combat veterans. The study shows profound positive results in areas of:

  1. Physical demands: Expenditure of energy on a daily basis helps alleviate nervous energy and promote better sleep.
  2. Establishing bonds with other combat veterans: The experience of the trail supports the building of strong friendships and deep bonding between hikers.
  3. Gradual re-socialization: The trails are isolated and offer time alone for processing and reflection. Time with others affords a gradual re-entry into social settings.

Although an expedition is not a cure for PTSD, it is an essential first step towards recovery. And most importantly, it does not involve drugs or any substance that a trauma victim might turn to, and subsequently be destroyed by. Gobin’s organization has received a $20,000 grant from the Disabled Veterans National Foundation.

“We’re incredibly thankful for the very generous donation, and it’s really going to impact the lives of veterans who are going to participate in our program next year,” Gobin says.

Today, he continues fighting for his fellow veterans, welcoming them into an extended family of fellow warriors on the home front. Throomers salutes these incredible men and women and the dedicated work of Sean Gobin.

Know a veteran with PTSD or want to help? Learn more at warriorexpeditions.org.