Marine Helps Vets Overcome PTSD on Months-Long Wilderness Excursions: 'Hiking Saved My Life'
When Marine Corps veteran Sean Gobin first hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2012, his goal was to decompress from combat deployments that left him “a mental wreck.”
Gobin was shocked at how his outlook changed during the months-long journey. “Here I was, enjoying a conversation, and not expecting to be shot or stabbed,” he says.
By trail’s end, Gobin had a new mission: “I wanted to help other warriors walk off the war like I did.”
In 2013, Gobin formed a nonprofit that became Warrior Expeditions, sending 40 veterans per year on extended forays into the wild. The outings include eight trails, plus a Mississippi River kayak voyage, and a cross-country bicycle trek.
Gobin’s group gives participants everything they need: equipment, clothing, supplies and a small monthly stipend. The expeditions take anywhere from three to six months, and offer readjustment to civilian life after a combat zone.
“In previous times, warriors marched home with their units,” Gobin, 43, tells PEOPLE. “The act of marching home took a long time. It was a way to decompress and to share that process of adjusting from the combat zone to the home front.”
“Today, we don’t have that,” Gobin adds. “Warriors go instantly from combat into civilization, with no time to adjust. It’s overwhelming and isolating.”
Army veteran Tony Posuniak, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and saw combat, had problems soon after leaving the service in 2011. He found himself at home battling PTSD.
“I was struggling a lot with irritability and had distrust of people,” says Posuniak, 34.
It’s a common phenomenon, Gobin says.
“After dealing with the absolute worst of humanity while you are deployed and in combat, a lot of vets struggle to interact with people,” Gobin says. “They lose the ability to trust. They isolate themselves and struggle with depression.”
The trail helps counteract that.
“You have all these people in trail towns and VFW posts and places along the way, and they are nice to the hikers,” Gobin says. “They appreciate them. They are kind.”
The “trail angels” — who also include Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and ordinary citizens — hold cookouts, offer items to help the vets on the trail and give them places to take a shower, wash their clothes or sleep in a real bed.
“It re-establishes faith in humanity,” Gobin says.
The trail also helps with the nitty-gritty of self-understanding.
“In mainstream life, everything is so fast-paced,” says Gobin. “There’s never any time for anyone to process what they’ve gone through.”
The expeditions dispense time in abundance.
“When you’re out in nature for eight to 10 hours a day for months on end, the mind comes to terms,” Gobin says.
The process isn’t easy. At first, Posuniak was miserable on his 2018 Appalachian Trail expedition.
“I really frigging hated the trail,” he says. “I was in pain all the time. I hated it so much. I was hoping I would get injured so I would have an excuse to quit.”
Then he had an epiphany: “I realized I was fighting myself.”
Posuniak felt himself changing along the rest of the trail.
“While hiking the trail, you learn to be present,” Posuniak says. “It’s sort of trail talk [or] hippie talk for letting yourself experience your emotions. It’s about the journey and not the end. It’s about staying in the moment and seeing the beauty around you.”
“I learned to be present,” Posuniak says. “The things that bothered me before don’t bother me now.”
In January, Posuniak began school to become a nurse practitioner. He credits Gobin with the reset: “He changed my life.”
Gobin credits the trails: “The real therapy happens out in nature.”
Now he’s shepherding the 2019 expeditions, and planning for more. He takes the work seriously.
“It saved my life,” Gobin says. “It’s my moral obligation to help.”
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