Warrior Hike
Podcast #80 — Aired January 18, 2016

Sean Gobin served his country for years in the Marine Corps, and today he serves his fellow veterans through Warrior Hike. Warrior Hike is a “Walk Off The War” Program that supports combat veterans transitioning from their military service by thru-hiking America’s National Scenic Trails. Gobin will discuss his inspiration for the program and how Warrior Hike is helping veterans make a successful transition from military life.

 

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Sean Gobin
Founder & Executive Director, Warrior Hike

Sean Gobin is founder and Executive Director of Warrior Hike. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1994 as an Infantry Rifleman and received his commission upon graduating from the University of Mississippi in 2001. As an Armor Officer, Sean served as a platoon commander in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and again in 2005. In 2011, Sean trained the Afghan National Security Forces in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Since separating from the Marine Corps and hiking the Appalachian Trail, Sean founded the Warrior Hike “Walk Off The War” Program and completed his master’s degree in Business Administration from the University of Virginia.

Episode Transcript

Raymond Hansell
Hi, welcome to BetterWorldians Radio. BetterWorldians Radio is a weekly broadcast whose mission is to uplift and inspire you to make the world a better place. Im Ray Hansell. BetterWorldians Radio is brought to you by the family team that created the popular social game on Facebook called A Better World. It rewards players for doing good deeds, while helping to raise money and awareness for charities. So far over thirty-five million good deeds have been done in A Better World by more than three and a half million people. These good deeds include expressions of gratitude, acts of kindness, sending notes to real world sick kids, just to name a few. This week were speaking with the founder of Warrior Hike. A nonprofit that supports military veterans as they walk off the war through long distance hikes. Captain Sean Gobin enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1994 as an Infantry Rifleman and received his commission upon graduating from the University of Mississippi in 2001. Sean served as a platoon commander in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and then again in 2005. In 2011, Sean trained the Afghan National Security Forces in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Since separating from the Marine Corps and hiking the Appalachian Trail, Sean founded the Warrior Hike Walk Off The War Program and completed his masters degree in Business Administration from the University of Virginia. Hi Sean, thanks for joining us today on BetterWorldians Radio.

Sean
Hi, thanks so much for having me, Im honored to be here.

Raymond Hansell
Oh youre very welcome. Lets being by talking about the beginning of all this. When you left the Marine Corps after three deployments, you decided to walk the Appalachian Trail. So why did you decide to do that?

Sean
Well it all started when I was traveling with my parents growing up in their R.V., and we used to visit the national parks up and down the east coast. And I remembered as a kid seeing this trail that I learned stretched from Georgia to Maine, and I then I also heard that theres not a whole lot of people whove successfully completed that hike. And so for me it started as a personal challenge, something I just wanted to try and do.

Raymond Hansell
And what was that hike like for you, for that first experience?

Sean
Well, it started as something I was going to do before grad school. I left the Marines in the spring of 2012, and I had to start grad school in the fall of 2012. And so I convinced a friend of mine that I was deployed with to join me on this trek. And so the last day I was in the Marines, we drove out of the back gate of Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and drove to Georgia and started hiking. And for my personal experience it was, it was an incredible experience, both with the physical challenges that went along with that and then all of the mental and emotional healing that came afterwards. But, its hard to describe the hike, it was really, it was in three phases. The first phase was the survival phase, you know, just trying to figure out what gear to use, you know, what food to bring, how often to hike and take breaks, and where to stay, how many miles to do per day. It was a steep learning curve for that first month, and there was a lot of pain that came along with making bad decisions. And after the first month the, you know, everything started to click, you get the gear figured out, get the hiking techniques figured out, and you know, really started to enjoy it. And at the point at which the hike really became enjoyable and I was able to just start focusing outward, as opposed to inward on all the pain I was experiencing at the time. It really started to help me process and decompress from my twelve years in the Marines and three combat deployments. And so, you know, just hiking eight hours a day for day on end and week on end, you know, really gave me that time and space to think and decompress. And that was, you know, the middle of the hike. And then by the end of the hike, I took the last third of the hike, you know, I really then started to focus on, you know, what was important to me and I started to prioritize my life as far as what I wanted to do, what was important to me, what was I passionate about, and thats where the idea of the Warrior Hike came to be.

Raymond Hansell
So thats where the realization really kicked in, that this could actually benefit veterans as a process they would be going through to transition to civilian life. Is that about the time, that third section of the hike?

Sean
Yeah, exactly. Because at the time in 2012, the Department of Defense was really struggling with, you know, how to properly transition service members after being at war for over ten years. And they were really struggling with that, and you know, the transition processing that I went through, taught exiting the Marine Corps, it was woefully insufficient in my opinion.

Raymond Hansell
Yeah.

Sean
And so, you know, while I was going through this hike I realized, wow this is such a powerful and therapeutic experience. It made me wonder if the other veterans would have the same experience that I did by doing one of these long distance hikes. And then come to find out after the hike, I realized, that you know, the very first person to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail was a World War II veteran by the name of Earl Schaeffer and he had come home after losing his best friend and was languishing for a few years and finally told his family and friends that he was going to walk off the war. And he took off for Georgia, same as me, and four and a half months later he became the very first person to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. And so it was interesting that, theres a very strong military history of people going out to do these hikes.

Raymond Hansell
And so that expression walk off the war, came all the way back there, like over a half a century ago essentially.

Sean
Correct, exactly right. And then before that, learning that there was a lot of papers that had been written that talk about, you know, before the age of modern transportation, Armies used to march home from battle, and that long walk home, you know, allowed everybody to decompress and process their experiences and kind of set them up for when they did come home. Whereas now, in the age of modern transportation, you know, I was home from the battlefield within seventy-two hours of all three of my combat deployments. So that was a very abrupt transition from being on the battlefield to being back at home, being back on the battlefield, and after going back and forth three times, you can see where that transition really starts to get murky.

Raymond Hansell
Now you received some really good support from organizations along the way to turn this idea that you had at that point into reality. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Sean
Sure. So it started off with, you know, the very first hike we organized with Warrior Hike was the Appalachian Trail because thats the one I had hiked myself. And so we partnered with the Appalachian Conservancy, which is the organization that manages that particular trail. And so they were, you know, really integral in giving us the information and helping us make connections with the different groups and folks along the way. And then we also plugged into the Veteran Organizations that are located in the towns up the entire trail. And so between the hiking groups and the veterans group, you know, we were able to set up support along these trails for our veterans as they made their way up the hike.

Raymond Hansell
So what does the Warrior Hike provide to veterans?

Sean
So we essentially designed the program around my experience in 2012 when I hiked the Appalachian Trail. So the first thing we do is we screen applicants as they come in and we make sure that were putting veterans that really could benefit from the experience, and also have the wherewithal to complete a long distance hike. From there once those veterans are selected, we provide them with all the hiking gear, clothing and supplies they need to complete a six month two thousand plus mile journey along the Appalachian Trail. Then once a week, typically on the weekends the trail passes through different trail towns along the way, we plug into those communities that I just mentioned, those community groups, and they essentially host our veterans for a night and give them a place to stay, get cleaned up, do laundry, have dinner before putting them back out on the trail the next day.

Raymond Hansell
And then along the way your veterans also receive a good deal of support from the communities they come across, isnt that correct?

Sean
Correct, exactly.

Raymond Hansell
And what does that mean to you guys and to the hikers?

Sean
Well theres three things that are really impactful with the veterans experience while out on the trail, and the community support being one of them. Before that, whats really impactful to them is, first being together with other veterans that have experienced something similar to them. Again we go back to history of the armies marching home, and youre surrounded by people that you went to war with, that understand the experiences that youve gone through and the transition process that youre now experiencing. So youve got those veterans around you to talk through those, you know, through that process as its happening. The second thing is that yeah, the communities along the way are really essential because, you know, after being at war for ten years, you know, weve been exposed to, you know, the worst of humanity and a lot of veterans are coming home bitter towards humanity and society at large, because theyve been exposed to the worst of the worst.

Raymond Hansell
Right.

Sean
And so to have all these communities that are reaching out and hosting our veterans, that they dont even know them, but theyre taking them home and giving them a place to stay and encouraging them on their journey. It reestablishes that basic faith in humanity that you might have lost along the way. And then, like I mentioned before, its also the fact of just having eight hours a day just to process all those experiences in your head. And unfortunately life is paced so fast that, you know, its so fast while youre in the service and then immediately you get out and you hop on the first job opportunity thats available and its just as fast. And by doing these hikes and hiking for eight hours a day for six months, it just basically puts everything on pause and allows the brain to actually process and decompress from all youve seen.

Raymond Hansell
And in a very positive way I would imagine, as opposed to sort of languishing and not moving, or you know, just kind of reflecting negatively. I would assume that movement, that methodical movement would participate in getting things moving in a positive direction.

Sean
Yeah, absolutely, I mean just the physical benefits along with the mental, social, and spiritual are great. Because I mean you walk for eight hours a day for six months, you know, that puts all your bodys natural rhythms back into sync. So you usually finish and youre in the best shape of your life, and your sleep schedules back, you know, youre awake when the sun is up, youre asleep when the sun is down, you know, youre eating and drinking regularly, and you know, all that physical exertion really gets you in a good physical state of being, which then facilitates, you know, the good mental state of being as well.

Raymond Hansell
Well that sounds amazing. Were going to take a short break right now but when we return well talk more with Warrior Hike founder Sean Gobin. By the way if youre enjoying this episode of BetterWorldians Radio, please be sure to subscribe to our show on iTunes. Wed love it if youd give us a five star review. Were always listening to your feedback, so let us know what you think. Well be right back.

Raymond Hansell
Youre listening to BetterWorldians Radio. Were speaking with Warrior Hike founder Sean Gobin. Sean you offer job programs to the veterans after the hike. Can you talk to our listeners a little bit about that?

Sean
Sure, so weve partnered with Orion International and their Americas largest veteran placement company. A lot of times you see the veteran job placement companies mostly focus on the officer ranks, but Orion International actually focuses on both. And so, you know, we partnered with them and theyve got an incredible network with a lot of veteran friendly companies that hire veterans. And so, yeah, they offer the services to our veterans where they help them with resume writing, interviewing skills, and then match up their experience and abilities with good fits with positions in companies of their choice and geographic location. And then in addition to them, we also now have a large network of contacts within the outdoor space, posts within the government organizations, the nonprofit organizations, and the commercial organizations that are all in the outdoor industry. And so if theres a particular company or organization that interests our veterans, we can, you know, just help make those introductions as well.

Raymond Hansell
Thats great, thats great. Now theyre also adventures, hikes available to physically or opportunities to move about and to get out there for the physically disabled veterans. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?

Sean
Sure, so you know, with the way that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were fought, you know, we had quite a few veterans coming home with pretty serious injuries that dont necessarily allow them to hike two thousand plus miles. And I started to receive a lot of interest and applications from injured veterans. And so that kind of spurred the idea, well how can we create a long distance outdoor expedition for veterans with more serious injuries. And so that spawned the idea or Warrior Paddle, which we launched this past July. And that is a paddling trip down the entire length of the Mississippi river, its about twenty three hundred miles, and goes from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. And the program is set up the same way the hikes are, where they stop once a week and, you know, theyre hosted by the communities along the way. But the advantage to this is if you get somebody with serious leg injuries and prosthetics, they can paddle instead of doing a hike. And then from building off of that idea, now in 2016 were also going to launch Warrior Bike, which is going to be a cross-country bicycle expedition along the Trans America Trail, which is from Virginia to Oregon. And adaptive bicycling has become a pretty popular activity amongst the veteran community and so our idea is to then open up Warrior Bike, along with, Warrior Paddle for injured veterans.

Raymond Hansell
And what kind of impact have all these programs had? I mean, can you give me some sense of the scope, or the scale of the numbers of people that youve impacted so far?

Sean
Sure, so since 2013, weve put seventy-one veterans out on our long distance expedition that all last between three to six months. And the impact has been incredible. We actually partnered with Georgia Southern University, theres two veterans that work within their psychology department that have been helping us to study how and why the program works the way it does. And what theyve been doing is providing our veterans wellness surveys before, during, after and then one year post of the experiences. And yeah, the research has been really astounding, the positive effects on overall wellbeing, both mental, physical and social from doing these experiences.

Raymond Hansell
Do you have some stories, or specific stories that sort of comes to mind about a veteran that really, you know, got a great deal out of the program?

Sean
Theres so many, its almost everybody. But, you know, with regards to the physical aspects, we had one veteran she showed up and was really overweight as a result of her depression while losing her father while she was deployed. And she showed up and made the entire hike, hiking the entire Appalachian Trail over the course of six months. Lost sixty pounds and then became a personal trainer. So it really, it helped restart her, you know, her physical wellbeing, which then had a really positive impact on her, you know, mental and social wellbeing. We had another veteran that, you know, lived in Virginia Beach in a more urban area, but then realized how therapeutic and peaceful the outdoors was, and then picked up and moved his family to right by the Shenandoah National Park. Now lives right off the trail in the mountains and is enjoying the, you know, peace and serenity of the outdoors. And then weve got countless stories of veterans that just, you know, they thought this is what they wanted to do when they got out, but then realized after doing the hike, they kind of reprioritized their lives and realized that you dont need a lot of stuff, or a lot of money to be happy, you can be happy with just the things you carry on your back and the friends that you have around you, and theyve all started to go to more outdoor, social conscious like jobs and careers. So yeah its been quite the story.

Raymond Hansell
Yeah, thats a great phase, you can be happy with just the things you carry on your back. We have a lot of shows about happiness and gratitude and giving back and what have you, and were going to have to carry that one with us, Im going to ask your permission so we can use that phrase again.

Sean
Yeah, absolutely.

Raymond Hansell
Okay, I appreciate that. Well how about yourself? What has it meant to you to be able to do this for you fellow veterans?

Sean
Its been good. You know, when I first got out of the Marines, I mean I was in grad school to get my MBA, I had a couple business plans that I was spinning. I was also in the hiring process with the DEA to become a special agent with them. And when I got to that crossroads of, you know, what am I going to do, because Warrior Hike essentially started as a side project that really blew up over night. You know, I was at this crossroads, and for me it became a quality of life decision, and you know the lack of quality of life that I had while I was in the Marines was what sent me on this path to begin with. So, you know, I decided to take a risk and spend all of my time and effort helping others, and helping other veterans to come home, you know, and transition back into society. And so, its good to get up in the morning, it makes you excited to get up in the morning knowing that youre doing something good to help other people, as opposed to, sitting in a cubicle and crunching out spreadsheets all day. Yeah, it just, it gives you purpose in life.

Raymond Hansell
Great purpose, great purposes, you know, giving back is often that the gift is often to the giver themselves, the impact is so profound, so. So how can our listeners actually help support Warrior Hike?

Sean
Yeah, theres a number of things they can do. First and foremost, if they know a veteran thats struggling that they think would benefit from one of these long distance expeditions, have them go to the website and apply. The next is, you know, obviously donations are what run the organization and if people want to donate that helps us put the gear on the backs of our veterans. Since were an all volunteer organization, I think in 2015, our overhead expense was less than one percent. So ninety-nine percent of what you donate goes directly to the veteran hiking the trails. And then lastly, if they, you know, go to our website they can see where our trails are located and if they happen to be located in a community where one of these trails pass through and they want to, you know, host our veterans for a night, they can reach out, contact us through the website and if they like that option they can help coordinate that support as well.

Raymond Hansell
Thats very, very clear, wonderful way to participant on multiple levels. So how do you hope Warrior Hike is actually going to help to make it a better world for these transitioning veterans?

Sean
Well I think, you know, the ultimate, the ultimate goal here is to show, you know, to give veterans an opportunity to transition in a positive way. You know, unfortunately, we see a lot of folks come home and they turn to self medication, drugs and alcohol, and ultimately the worst is, you know, it runs down the road of suicide. And so were trying to expose the veteran community to the outdoors as a long term therapeutic way of coping with their experience. And the great thing about the outdoors is its accessible from everywhere, its free, and so when youre home and youre struggling and you feel those stresses, and those anxieties start to surface, you can just grab your gear and go outside and go for a hike and be out in nature, and its just a great way to process and decompress.

Raymond Hansell
Well we hope that well help you get the word out because I think more people have to find out about these kinds of outlets, especially at the grassroots level, where somebody like you actually, walked the walk, literally from the beginning and that gave you the idea to turn that walk into something much more meaningful for many more people. So once again thank you for joining us today on BetterWorldians Radio Sean.

Sean
Well thanks for having me again, it was my pleasure.

Raymond Hansell
Youre very welcome. You can learn more about Seans great work by going to Warrior Hike dot org. And by the way, right now, our social game on Facebook is one hundred percent free through the end of the month and through January 31st, the only currency accepted is acts of kindness, and other social good you can do. Were currently challenging our players to perform one million good deeds total by the end of the year, actually by the end of January. And were closing in very close. And when they do, A Better World will release funds to provide new coats for children in need nationwide through our partnership with Operation Warm. Were getting very close to that goal, but we could use your help. So jump onto Facebook dot com A Better World, play the game and do good deeds, thats all you need to do. As we close our show, we like to share our BetterWorldians mission. We strive to make the world a better place by encouraging the very best in everyone. We focus on positive thinking, positive values, and positive actions. In short, our vision is to bring out the BetterWorldian in everyone, so we can all make it a better world. Until next time, be a BetterWorldian.