Orange veteran looking for lost soul during hike

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ORANGE, Mass. (AP) - 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.

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