BENNINGTON -- Despite having hiked nearly 600 miles of the toughest terrain the Appalachian Trail has to offer, two U.S. Army veterans say this is the easiest "deployment" they have ever been on.
Sgt. First Class Eric Bourquin and Capt. Sean Niquette are hiking from Maine to Georgia to prove a point, raise some funds, and to heal. While it isn't a mountain top in Afghanistan, the peaks of the Appalachian Mountains offer their own challenges.
"The Appalachian Trail is no joke, it's the hardest trail out of all of them. It just proves that vets are capable of doing tough stuff," said Bourquin. Still, their experience in the military has more than prepared them. "This is the easiest deployment we've ever been on. Nobody to yell at us, we go our own pace, and if we want to we can sleep in a shelter," he said.
Bourquin and Niquette were in downtown Bennington on Wednesday having hitched a ride into town from the Appalachian Trail head at Harmon Hill. They stopped to eat at Benner's Bagels Pizza N' What Nosh and planned to spend the night a campsite on the trail before heading into Massachusetts.
Bourquin, 34, retired from a 15-year army career in April. Niquette, 27, was out as of June after serving for nine years. Each has served overseas, Niquette in Iraq, and Bourquin in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both men have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and are hiking the 2,200 mile trail to prove that veterans with PTSD are up to any challenge, and to "walk off the war."
The national unemployment rate is about 6 percent for civilians and close to 12 percent for veterans. "Corporate America sees us as a liability," Bourquin said. "It used to be the stigma associated with PTSD, now you're viewed as more of a liability than an asset, whereas you should be viewed as an asset."
Once they finish the hike, hopefully by Thanksgiving, they intend to carry their education further. Niquette said he plans to attend graduate school for a master's degree in business administration while Bourquin plans to acquire enough credits to enter a nursing program and become a case manager for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs where he can help people like himself.
Neither consider themselves hikers; most of their experience with hiking has come from being in the military where the mountain climbing was less than optional.
The idea for the hike came after the head of The Sterling Group, a veteran-owned executive recruiting firm, viewed Niquette's online resume on academyconnect.com. The Sterling Group is sponsoring Niquette and Bourquin's hike, which is chronicled on hikingheroes.com
"I was hesitant at first, but then after sleeping on it, it was something I was interested in doing," said Niquette. "I figured it would be better to have two people instead of one, so I mentioned Eric here and the rest is history."
They served together on their last deployment and their partnership has worked out well on the trail, Bourquin said. The camaraderie they developed in the military lets them share navigating duties, food, and dry socks when needed.
Both men said they are especially grateful to their wives, who aid them from Texas by sending them supplies in the mail and receiving things they no longer need, such as the winter clothing they used to pass through Maine and New Hampshire. Their journey began in June at Mount Katahdin in Maine and will end at Springer Mountain in Georgia.
"It wouldn't be possible without our wives," said Bourquin, whose wife, Leslie, has been quite gracious about his "gallivanting" around the woods while she looks out for their children, including a two and a half month old, at home. Niquette said his wife, Lauren, deserves his thanks as she is pregnant and in the process of moving to Tennessee. Their friend, Josh York, of Killeen, Texas, has also aided them with supplies through the mail.
"We're like the test case," said Niquette. "Having both been diagnosed with PTSD, it serves as a therapeutic event for us. We're able to overcome emotional and physical injuries to complete a challenge, essentially."
Bourquin said they also hope to get sponsors to donate to Hiking Heroes so other veterans who spent their late teens and early 20s in the military can "walk off their war" along the Appalachian Trail. He said the concept comes from Earl Shaffer, a veteran of World War II who is the first documented person to hike the length of the trail. He did so in order to recover from the horrors he witnessed in the Pacific Theater and the loss of his friends there.
Like Shaffer, Bourquin and Niquette are walking the trail in order to heal.
"I got a concussion in a blast in which a soldier was also killed," said Niquette. That soldier, he said, was Sgt. Steven Talamantez, who hailed from the Loredo, Texas area. The blast happened in 2011 and after Niquette was treated for the physical concussion, some of the psychological problems were noticed as well and he was treated for PTSD.
Bourquin said after multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, the symptoms of his PTSD began to show and made him the type of person he did not wish to be. "A lot of things started manifesting after Afghanistan, and after a while I started out to be a mean dad," he said. "I wanted my kid to be able to talk to me, and have normal human interaction, and have sympathy again instead of empathy, so I figured it was time to go ahead and get help."
He said it took some time for him to seek help, but once he did he began advocating that others in need do so as well. "I'm very pro-get help. Screw the stigma. You only get one life, you only got one body, you only get one brain, if you're hurting anywhere go get it looked at."
Both said they take medication to treat their PTSD, and managing it on the trail has taken some planning but they, with the help of their wives, keep a tab on it. Niquette said his symptoms have gotten better and both have found the hike helpful.
"I think one thing it does, it restores your faith in humanity," said Niquette. "The reason being is there's a lot of, what you hear is ‘trail magic,' whether that's someone leaving a 12 pack of Coke at a trailhead, or picking you up and giving you a ride, or opening their home for you, there's a lot of acts of just genuine kindness that occurs along the trail. That helps especially guys who have seen some bad stuff. It restores hope in humanity, for one. Being out in nature does as well."
Niquette and Bourquin are not alone in following Shaffer's path. They said they have met many veterans while walking the trial
"We find we do prefer to hang out with other veterans over anybody else," said Bourquin. "If we know there's a hostel run by a veteran, we go there first." He said they do not shun civilians, but there is a connection with other service members that is not present with others.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.