Veteran takes advantage of Warrior Hike program
Editor’s note: This story was updated Oct. 16, 2015, to reflect that fact that another hiker sponsored by Warrior Hike, Stephen Thomas, also completed the entire PCT.
By Marcy Stamper
Participants in the Warrior Hike program set out to “walk off the war,” but Anne Dios said hiking from Mexico to Canada — over 57 mountain passes and through deserts and old-growth forests — made her a different person.
“It’s going to separate my life — before the PCT [Pacific Crest Trail] and after,” said Dios.
With less than 100 miles till she reaches the Canadian border, Dios spent two days this week in the Methow Valley as the guest of American Legion Post 143 in Twisp. Tristan Gilbert, adjutant of the post, organized her visit, and local vets donated two nights in area hotels.
Dios was one of six veterans selected from a pool of more than 200 to hike the PCT, but only two completed the 2,650-mile-long hike. The others had to cut short the journey because of injuries or family issues.
The Warrior Hike program sponsors combat veterans who have the motivation and need to hike off the war. “It’s about vets getting into the wild to put themselves back together,” said Dios.
Dios, age 31, had done day hikes but hadn’t done any backpacking until she began training for the expedition. “I was so motivated, I planned on hiking the PCT either way,” even if she hadn’t been selected for the Warrior Hike program, she said.
Warrior Hike connects the vets with hosts — most associated with the Veterans of Foreign Wars or American Legion — in towns along the way. The hosts organize informal events so the hikers can meet others in the communities they pass through. Dios said meeting people like Gilbert helped keep her motivated.
Dios, who started at the Mexican border on April 13, took her time on the hike. “I wasn’t in any big rush,” she said. “If I can do it, anyone with motivation could,” she said.
Now, just days from Canada, Dios is contemplating life after her momentous journey. “It will be so different to find a job, and to have to go out of my way to stay physically and mentally healthy. On the trail, it’s just a default — it’s easy to be happy when you fall asleep to moonlight and always hear birds chirping,” she said.
The Warrior Hike program was founded in 2012 by a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who hiked the Appalachian Trail to heal his wartime experiences. He was inspired by a WWII veteran who made the same trip in 1948. The program supports hikers on seven National Scenic Trails, helping with gear, a food stipend, and connections in towns.
Warrior Hikers have individual reasons for needing to walk off the war. “There are so many different jobs in the military,” said Dios. “We’re not all running around with guns, but there’s still room for bad experiences and trauma.”
Dios, who served in the U.S. Army Reserve for eight years, was deployed to Kuwait in 2008, her final year of service. In Kuwait, she spent 12-hour days in a windowless room analyzing top-secret reports on deaths and injuries of troops who were supplying forces in Iraq. The only woman in the facility, she experienced unrelenting harassment by members of her own unit.
“Maybe it doesn’t sound like much to vets who’ve been shot at or lost friends, but if you don’t feel safe even walking into the coffee room …,” she said. “The ideal is that nobody ever harasses anybody else. The Army is getting better at trying to prevent bad results,” but the military experience is still often glorified by Hollywood, which depicts everyone working together, said Dios. “That wasn’t my experience at all,” she said. “It was really demoralizing.”
After her deployment, Dios went straight to college, where she didn’t feel comfortable talking about her experiences in the war. “I left the military with upsetting memories and distrust. I wasn’t sure how to integrate that with what the average person on the street thinks of a vet,” she said.
Gilbert, who served two years in the U.S. Navy on two different ships, was able to relate to the stress Dios experienced. The two months he spent on a ship with a crew of both men and women, where morale was high, was the high point of his military career. But his regular assignment, where he worked 120 hours a week with minimal sleep, was degrading and humiliating, he said.
Hiking the PCT restored Dios’ faith in humanity and in the military. “I met so many good people on the trail that it brought me out of my bubble,” she said. Dios said she had been “very, very introverted” before setting out on the hike. “You’re almost forced to trust people on the trail, and to appreciate the small things,” she said.
When she finishes the hike, Dios plans to return home to Los Angeles and begin looking for a job that uses her degree in environmental studies. Her pack was already brimming with bags of potato chips and caramel popcorn for her celebration when she reaches the Canadian border. “It’s been so enjoyable,” she said.