Warrior Hikers Stop By North Adams VFW Post 996

By John DurkaniBerkshires Staff
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VFW Post 996 members and the Warrior Hikers, wearing green, pose outside the post.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 996 on Thursday hosted five veterans who are in the process of hiking 2,180-mile up the East Coast.
 
Five veterans, ranging in age from their mid-20s to roughly 50, took a detour from hiking northbound on the Appalachian Trail and stopped at the VFW for a meal and some conversation. 
 
The veterans are participating in the Warrior Hike, a program that primarily focuses on allowing veterans to "walk off the war." 
 
"This is a great way for veterans to quiet their minds," said Tom Gathman, a young veteran from Pennsylvania who toured in Iraq with the Marines.
 
Since embarking in mid-March, the original group of 16 dwindled down to five by the time they entered North Adams — well over the typical approximately 10 to 15 percent completion rate.
 
VFW Post 996 gave them a big welcome.
 
District Commander Francis Scott Gagnon said the VFW as a whole has a tough time battling the stereotype of being grandfathers drinking at the bar, relishing old war stories. It's real purpose involves assisting comrades, educating others, remembering history and embracing patriotism, he said.
 
Over at the banquet hall, Gathman's mood was light and easygoing. After all, the veteran seized the opportunity to feed his heavy appetite that has earned him the trail name of Jabba, referring to the Star Wars' oversized, sluglike mobster.
 
"I eat like a vacuous, fat gangster slob, intergalactically," Gathman joked in the midst of shoveling down plates of spaghetti and meatballs in between sides of desserts.
 

Rob Carmel, left, Tom Gathman and Stephanie Cutts stop at Diane's Twist. Below, Marty Bailey, left, reunites with Sharon Smith and Greg Hatton after 26 years.

The food break was pleasant though. On the trail, Baltimore native Rob Carmel, who served in the Army for 32 years, compared the diet to a college student's — filled with ramen, and mac and cheese.
 
The veterans have seen many sights on their journey so far, including a black bear and her three cubs, red tail hawks, different arrangements of colorful fungi and plants, including the rare lady's slippers.
 
Locally, they stopped at the Shamrock Inn in Dalton, Diane's Twist in Cheshire, and crossed through the highest point in the state on Thursday.
 
Physically, the trail is tough, but Navy veteran Stephanie "Rosie" Cutts said she didn't expect it to be so mentally challenging as well.
 
The mental challenges go beyond just battling the trail, said Sharon Smith, who served as an Air Force medic in Operation Desert Storm and the second oldest in the group. (Her medic expertise and mom-like instincts earned her the trail name Mama Goose.)
 
Smith recalled when she was younger and buried her own thoughts — not only about the war, but how life changed afterwards. Since then, she's hiked and thought about her past and processed it so she could move on. Smith wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail on her own, but when this opportunity to go with fellow veterans came up, she took it.
 
Smith wants the younger veterans to "think, process and let it go" in this six-month opportunity. She's glad they're on the trail, otherwise Smith is worried they, like too many other veterans, will bury their problems in alcohol and drugs, and then later wonder why they feel crazy or suicidal.
 
"We need other ways to help," Smith said. "This is a huge one."
 
The hike is currently in its second year, although this is the first year for a large group. Last year, Sean Gorbin and Mark Silvers hiked the trail to raise about $50,000 for three adapted vehicles for amputees at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
 
This year's group hopes to pave the way in support to help future groups.
 
Gorbin said on Friday that almost everyone wanted to get involved during a conference in Utah. Current sponsors help out in supplying gear and supplies, as well as jobs for veterans.
 
And along the road they find help, too. Early in the trip, Kevin Reed, who served in the Marines in Kuwait, found a jar that he thought was jelly, but turned out to be moonshine — earning his trail name "Grape Lightning." More regularly, the group stops at various VFW posts.
 
On Thursday night, Smith received her own surprise gift — she was reunited with Marty Bailey of Scotia, N.Y., and Greg Hatton of Boston, after 26 years since they were all stationed together in Germany. Hatton gave the group a gift bag, containing allergy medicine, wet tissues and — to the Baltimore native Carmel's displeasure — Boston Red Sox visors.
 
Over the next six weeks, the remaining veterans will travel through Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine toward their destination of Mount Katahdin, scheduled for Friday, Sept. 13. To follow their progress, check out the Warrior Hike Facebook page.

Tags: Appalachian Trail,   hiking,   veterans,   

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