By Anita Fritz, The Recorder
It was 1948, three years after the end of World War II, when Earl Shaffer, a U.S. Army veteran from Pennsylvania, hiked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, something no one else had done to that point.
More than 14,000 people have hiked the entire trail since Shaffer, and U.S. Army National Guard veteran Joe Young of Orange says he hopes to be one of the next.
Many have attempted the 2,180-mile trek — some have finished, some have not. They’ve done it for many reasons: the challenge, the sheer exhilaration or just to be able to say they did it.
Others, like Young, decide they want to do it to find the piece of their soul they lost somewhere along the way — Young says he lost his in Iraq.
The 61-year-old veteran retired after spending 42 1/ 2 years in the National Guard. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, a type of anxiety disorder that occurs after someone has gone through an extreme emotional trauma that involves the threat of injury or death.
It’s obvious that he doesn’t like to talk about the specifics of what he saw in Iraq when he was deployed from 2003 to 2004 and again from 2005 to 2006. He served at Abu Ghraib prison and says if someone tries to push him too hard into talking about it and he starts to feel too uncomfortable, he simply leaves the room.
“I hope that sometime during my six-month hike with 13 other veterans I find that piece of my soul I’m looking for,” he said just days before he left for Georgia on March 14.
Young planned to begin on Spring Mountain in Georgia on St. Patrick’s Day and spend the next six months hiking to Mount Katahdin in Maine. He expects to cross Mount Greylock in North Adams in late July and reach Katahdin’s summit in September.
Last year, while perusing the Internet, he found the Warrior Hike’s “Walk Off the War” program for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and immediately contacted organizers.
“I’m in good shape and am an avid hiker, so I thought this would be perfect for me,” he says. “I needed something.”
The veteran, who is in the best shape of his life, according to himself and his wife, says he found it difficult re-adjusting to civilian life when he retired from the National Guard several years ago.
“You’re up early every day when you’re in the guard and you have a purpose each day,” he says. “After I retired I was still getting up early, but I didn’t know what to do with myself.”
That’s when Young says he found VetNet at Greenfield Community College, a club that helps veteran students return to their communities and school, and decided to enroll in college.
“I didn’t want to get a specific degree,” he says. “I wanted to do it for fun and learning. I took a lot of history classes, because that seemed really interesting to me.”
He says it took time to adjust to school.
“I had to sit in the back of the room, because I didn’t want anyone sitting behind me,” says Young. “You learn to do that when you’re deployed, especially to a place like Iraq.”
Young says there are plenty of groups that help returning veterans adjust, apply for benefits, and more, but veterans have to know where to go. He says a veteran should start with his or her local veterans agent and expand their search from there.
“Go online, too,” he says. “That’s where I found Warrior Hike. There are plenty of people out there who want to help.”
Like Shaffer did in 1948, Young says he plans to work out the sights, sounds and losses of Iraq on his hike. He says he won’t have a lot of contact with his family.
“I’ll have my cellphone, but I only plan to use it on weekends or in an emergency,” he says. “That’s just a choice I’m making so I can experience this to the fullest.”
Young says the 14 veterans, including himself, are expected to hike eight to 14 miles a day. They will each be carrying sleeping bags, tents, food, clothes and other necessities.
“We won’t all be sleeping in the same spot,” he says. “Some will move faster than others, but the end of the week, we are expected to be in the same spot.”
Young says the veterans will have the opportunity to stay with other veterans in their homes on weekends.
“We’ll be greeted each weekend by veterans from different VFWs, American Legions, and other veteran groups,” says Young. “I hear they are very helpful and hospitable.”
According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which oversees the entire trail, statistics show that about one in four people who set out to hike from Georgia to Maine make it, while the rest return home for many different reasons, including injury, family matters, bad experiences or they run out of money. The hike typically takes from four to seven months to complete.
“I’m really looking forward to this being a therapeutic cleansing for me,” says Young. “I want to get my head back where it belongs.”
He says he is looking forward most to hiking with other veterans who understand what he has been through.
“We’ll be able to help each other,” he says.
“I also want to find some enjoyment,” says Young. “I have it here at home with my wife, and my kids and grandchildren, when they visit. I find it on my motorcycle. Now, I want to find it out there, on my own.”
Two years ago, two veterans started the Warrior Hike and finished the Appalachian trek. Last year, 12 others joined those two and did the same.
“We’re a determined bunch,” says Young. “When you think about what some of us have been through in war, you realize this shouldn’t be all that bad.”
Recognizing the physical, mental and spiritual benefits of long-distance hiking, Warrior Hike has partnered with the conservancy, the Continental Divide Trail Coalition and the Pacific Crest Trail Association to create the “Walk Off the War” program, which takes place all over the United States.
The program is designed to support combat veterans who are transitioning from military service by hiking through American’s national scenic trails.
Young says he was provided all of the necessary equipment and supplies by Warrior Hike. He has to supply his own food and clothes.
He says the six-month hike will allow him to decompress and come to terms with his wartime experiences, while learning to use the outdoors as an alternative form of therapy.
“It’s the camaraderie that I am looking forward to most,” says Young. “That runs so deep when you are serving in the military and then you get home and you miss it.”
Young says he has also been told by many veterans that everyone eventually has a good cry.
“I haven’t had my good cry yet,” he says. “I’m hoping it happens on the trail.”
According to Warrior Hike, the “thru-hikes” and the interaction veterans have with other veterans and members of trail towns’ veteran organizations and local communities along the way restores their faith in humanity and builds a network of lifelong friendships and relationships.
Young, who was born in Winchendon, grew up in Orange, where he lives today. He attended Orange schools and graduated with a degree in agriculture from Smith Vocational Agricultural High School in Northampton.
The retired sergeant-major plans to write about his experiences each day. He says he will not cut his hair or shave until he returns home — he started growing his beard six weeks ago.
“It’s the first time I’ve had a beard in my life,” he says. “I hope there are going to be a lot of firsts for me over the next six months.”
Young’s trail name is Quabbin Trekker, and in his first entry, dated Jan. 25, he writes, “I have decided to dedicate this hike in honor of all my brothers and sisters that have paid the ultimate price.” He ends each of the entries he has made since then, “Onward, upward, forward.”
BEDFORD, N.H. — When Gunnery Sgt. Bernie Ruchin was in combat on the island of Saipan during World War II, he took some artillery shrapnel in his right knee.
He didn’t know that the injury would eventually catch up to him in October when his knee gave way walking down the stairs of his home in Bedford. Ruchin tore four tendons and is currently going through rehabilitation.
Now, his fellow Marines are coming to his aid just as they would on the battlefield, but this time, they’re remodeling his bathroom.
The Building Dreams for Marines organization, a local nonprofit that does construction projects for Marines in need, is spearheading the effort.
Ruchin said he has trouble showering because of his knee injury, and the group is volunteering its efforts to build him a bathroom that is more suitable to his needs.
This is the fifth project for the organization, which has helped wounded Marines returning from recent combat missions. This time, it’s helping a Marine who served in combat for 12 years in WWII and Korea.
The renovation project will construct a new shower and put in a railing system to help Ruchin navigate his home more easily.
Ruchin said he likes to see such projects go to the younger guys, but he realized he needed some help and was convinced to let the Marines do the job.
The project is being overseen by Cobb Hill Construction and is expected to be completed by next Thursday.
Walter Ehlers, the last living Medal of Honor recipient who came ashore on Omaha Beach on D-Day in 1944, died Thursday at the age of 92, ABCNews.com reported.
Ehlers, who joined the United States Army in 1940, earned his Medal of Honor “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty” on June 9 and 10, 1944, during a battle near Goville, France, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
On the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994, Ehlers was chosen, along with another D-Day veteran, Alvin Ungerleider, to escort President Bill Clinton at a wreath-laying ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery.
“When they were young, these men saved the world,” said Clinton before a sea of aging D-Day veterans.
Ehlers also earned three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star during his service with the 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Infantry Division.
The family of 93-year-old Howard Coger tells The Daily Star of Oneonta that he noticed in November that the American flag he flew outside his home in Cobleskill was missing.
Five young men enrolled at the state college in Cobleskill learned about it and decided to help their neighbor.
Coger’s family says the students — two from upstate New York and three from Massachusetts — bought another American flag of similar dimensions, then used a new mount to affix it to his garage before Coger died Dec. 19.
The Massachusetts students are Ethan Fervan, Jake Woodward and Kevin Hanson.
The 85-year-old U.S. veteran of the Korean War held the hand of his wife and was accompanied by his adult son when he briefly addressed the assembled media after disembarking from a direct flight from Beijing.
“I’m delighted to be home,” he said. “It’s been a great homecoming. I’m tired, but ready to be with my family.”
He also thanked the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, North Korea, and U.S. Embassy in Beijing for helping to secure his release. He declined to answer any questions and didn’t discuss his headline-grabbing captivity.
Newman was detained in late October at the end of a 10-day trip to North Korea, a visit that came six decades after he oversaw a group of South Korean wartime guerrillas during the 1950-53 war.
Last month, Newman read from an awkwardly worded alleged confession that apologized for, among other things, killing North Koreans during the war. Analysts questioned whether the statement was coerced, and former South Korean guerrillas who had worked with Newman and fought behind enemy lines during the war disputed some of the details.North Korea cited Newman’s age and medical condition in allowing him to leave the country.
Earlier Saturday, a smiling Newman told reporters in Beijing that he felt good and was glad to be on his way home.
“And I appreciate the tolerance the (North Korean) government has given to me to be on my way,” he said after arriving at the airport in Beijing from Pyongyang, adding that he looked forward to seeing his wife.
Newman’s detention highlighted the extreme sensitivity with which Pyongyang views the war, which ended without a formal peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula still technically in a state of war. The conflict is a regular focus of North Korean propaganda and media, which accuse Pyongyang’s wartime enemies Washington and Seoul of carrying on the fighting by continuing to push for the North’s overthrow.
The televised statement read last month by Newman said he was attempting to meet surviving guerrilla fighters he had trained during the conflict so he could reconnect them with their wartime colleagues living in South Korea, and that he had criticized the North during his recent trip.
Members of the former South Korean guerrilla group said in an interview last week with The Associated Press that Newman was their adviser. Some have expressed surprise that Newman would take the risk of visiting North Korea given his association with their group, which is still remembered with keen hatred in the North. Others were amazed Pyongyang still considered Newman a threat.
Newman’s son, Jeffrey, said he spoke briefly with his father from Beijing and that he was “in excellent spirits and eager to be reunited with his family.”
“As you can imagine this has been a very difficult ordeal for us as a family, and particularly for him,” he said in a statement read outside his home in Pasadena Friday night, adding that they will say more about this unusual journey after Newman has rested.
Newman’s release comes as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visit to the region brought him to Seoul. Biden said Saturday that he welcomed the release and said he talked by phone with Newman in Beijing, offering him a ride home on Air Force Two.
Today we honor all of those currently serving in the military
We honor all those that have served in the military
and we honor all those who gave their lives so that we may continue to live ours
We honor all the families, especially the children who have shared their loved ones
We are all indebted to you for all that you have given us
Thank you all for your willingness and courage that you offer up for our safety
We all extend to you our undying gratitude – Thank You!
Felina Silver Robinson (Brookline MA)