From left are Sterling Deck, warrior hiker on the CDT; Rick Phillips, support crew; Dana Phillips, warrior hiker and Rick's wife; Brian Leppek, warrior hiker; Kristi Black, CDT town coordinator; Sean Gobin, Warrior Hike national coordinator, and Jon O'Dell, warrior hiker. Not picturtured are Andrew Dyer, warrior hiker, and his girlfriend, who will also hike the CDT, Kim Geisreiter.
Photo and Article by Mary Alice Murphy
Four of six hikers, five of whom are veterans, called warrior hikers, gathered at VFW Commander Jim Zawacki's home in Silver City, the afternoon before they began the hike from the Mexican border to the Canadian border on the Continental Divide Trail.
Dana Phillips, who last year through-hiked the Appalachian Trail, leads the group with experience. "This time I'm walking the CDT as a veteran and doing it as a fundraiser for warriorhike.org."
Warrior Hike has created the "Walk Off The War" Program, which is designed to support combat veterans transitioning from their military service by through-hiking America's National Scenic Trails.
"My husband Rick, also a veteran, will be our lone support crew for most of the trip," Dana Phillips said.
Brian Leppek of Michigan said he is doing the hike because "after I came home, things were not the same. When we come home after serving in the military, we can feel lost and have post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as depression."
"I feel calm when I'm outside," Leppek said. "I saw this opportunity to hike the Continental Divide trail, I applied and was accepted. I have panic attacks in large groups, so I want to re-concentrate on myself and find myself. I've been here for seven days, because I came for the CDT celebration. I haven't met a rude person. I'm happier living under the stars. I owe it to my wife and daughter to get myself centered. If this part, the seven days I've been here, is the precursor to how I will feel after the hike, I can't wait."
Sterling Deck is also a warrior hiker, about to take off on the adventure.
"I spent 20 years in the military, ever since I was a teenager," Deck said. "I joined the year after I turned 18. This hike is like a continuation, like a mission to help me transition back to society. I love the outdoors and the physical and mental challenges this hike offers. When I found out about the opportunity, I knew I had to sign up. I want to see where it takes me. I want to go back to school and study biology. I want to become an ornithologist, maybe even get a Ph.D. I'll see where it takes me and what doors open. The V.A. is quick to give out meds, but that's just a 'bandaid.' Wilderness therapy is where it's at."
Sean Gobin, Warrior Hiker national coordinator, said the Continental Divide Trail is logistically challenging. "It's the longest of the triple crown trails at 3,100 miles. I will be helping out the first week, and then I'm going to Wisconsin to get the Ice Age Trail hike going, which is 1,200 miles long. It goes through Wisconsin. We have two female veterans hiking it this year."
Jon O'Dell, another warrior hiker, said he grew up in East Tennessee near the Smoky Mountains. "I went to survival school in Washington state, and fell in love with backpacking. For nine or 10 years, I went backpacking with my buddies. In reading different books, I was enthralled with long-distance hiking. When I got out of the military, I wanted to do the Continental Divide Trail."
"It's awesome what Warrior Hike is doing," O'Dell said. "I wouldn't do the CDT by myself. I am an experience hiker, and I'm chomping at the bit to get going."
He said the program had already helped him, because he had cold turkey quit dipping tobacco. "This is normalizing me back to civilian life. I just got out in September, and I have lived in a fifth-wheel for five years. After I got out, I lived with my brother, hoping to pre-empt problems adjusting."
These hikers and the two, who had been invited to dinner by others in town, Andrew Dyer, a veteran, and his girlfriend, Kim Geisreiter, an experienced long-distance hiker, are scheduled to end the hike at the Montana-Canada border on September 26, about five-and-a-half months from now.
Warrior Hike provides all the necessary gear for the hikers, although O'Dell said he was using some of his own gear.
For more information on the program, visit warriorhike.org.