Last week, VFW Post 1142 hosted a combat veteran hiking across North Carolina as part of Warrior Expeditions, a national nonprofit program serving men and women who fought in the nation’s wars.
Post 1142 Commander Foyst Blackburn, and William Nichols, former commander, picked up U.S. Army veteran Jude Rodrigue on June 28 on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Ashe County.
Rodrigue served as an Army Cavalry scout from 2005-2010, including in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
He is originally from New Orleans but began to love North Carolina while stationed at Fort Bragg with the Army. He lives in New Bern now, where he takes welding training at Craven Community College.
Only veterans who have served in combat are eligible for Warrior Expeditions. The national nonprofit supports veterans transitioning from their military service by participating in long distance outdoor expeditions.
Equipment and clothing needed for the hike are provided through the program. Warrior Expeditions also coordinates community support for transportation, lodging and food from veteran and community organizations located along the route.
After walking over 140 miles since June 6, Rodrigue, 30, was eager for time off, but also positive about his experience on the trail.
“I’ve been enjoying this beautiful state,” said Rodrigue on June 29 at the Wilkes VFW Post. He began his trek on the Mountains to Sea Trail at Clingman’s Dome in the Smoky Mountains.
He expects to complete the 1,175-mile Mountains to Sea Trail in early August at Nags Head on the N.C. Outer Banks. Rodrigue’s daily hikes average between 12 to 26 miles, depending on the terrain.
The goal of Warrior Expeditions is to “hike the war off,” said Rodrigue.
For Rodrigue and other combat veterans, participating in the Warrior Expedition helps with the problems of adjusting after combat duty.
“You learn to hide your problems, but getting out in the woods and hiking for hours makes that difficult,” said Rodrigue.
He described three days he spent alone in the cool temperatures of the Appalachian Mountains as therapeutic.
“You can’t run away from your problems and it helps you to find your way back to life,” said Rodrigue, who enlisted in the Army at 18, following his high school graduation.
Studies have shown that hiking and other outdoor activities help with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), said Rodrigue.
He began the hike with another combat veteran, Blake Hancock, who served from 2007-2011 with the U.S. Marines. During that period he was an infantryman in Afghanistan. Hancock is staying with family members on his stops, but is expected to rejoin Rodrigue around Raleigh.
The stop in Wilkes was Rodrigue’s second VFW sponsored stop. Besides much deserved rest and hot meals, the stops allow Rodrigue an opportunity to refill his backpack which contains food, a water filter, poncho and sleeping gear. He is also able to plan his route during the stops.
Lodging at Williams Motel and food for Rodrigue were provided through the VFW and the Swofford family of Wilkes.
The Ladies Auxiliary provided a lunch for Rodrigue on June 29 at the local VFW Post in North Wilkesboro. Joining him was his girlfriend, Megan Ipcock, who drove from New Bern to meet him in Wilkes.
Also meeting with Rodrigue at the VFW Hall last Thursday were members of the VFW, Auxiliary, Misty Smithey, Wilkes County register of deeds: Larry South, town manager for North Wilkesboro and Joe Rankin, North Wilkesboro police chief.
After leaving Wilkes on June 30, Rodrigue was headed toward Stone Mountain and then on toward the Yadkin River, where he will kayak part of the trail.
He said the Mountains to Sea Trail is considered one of the hardest and few people complete it. Last year a brother and sister participating in the Warrior Excursions did complete the trail. The two came through Wilkes for a VFW sponsored stop around this time of year.
Rodrigue was expecting the temperatures to get much hotter as he hiked closer to Raleigh and the eastern part of North Carolina.
Mapping apps on Rodrigue’s phone have helped with navigating his route, along with mile markers and a physical map. His girlfriend had brought along a small solar panel to help him charge his phone when batteries run low and there are no scheduled stops.
Several people at the VFW Hall on June 29 asked about his experiences on his hike so far. Rodrigue said he has seen plenty of snakes and a few coyotes, but no bears.
Rodrigue said he didn’t really worry about potential dangers when asked that question. “I feel peaceful.”
Warrior Expeditions was started by Sean Gobin in 2013. Following his return from deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan with the U.S. Marines, Gobin hiked the Appalachian Trail, following in the footsteps of a World War II veteran who hiked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail.
Gobin founded the program after realizing the therapeutic effects of long distance outdoors, said Rodrigue.
“He said he wouldn’t have survived without the hiking experience,” said Rodrigue.
Today 39 states participate in this nonprofit program which supplies the necessary gear for excursions with the Warrior Hike, Warrior Bike and Warrior Paddle programs.
A World War II veteran, Earl Shaffer, was the first to coin the phrase, “walk off the war,” according to information from Warrior Expeditions.
In 1948, Shaffer told a friend he was going to “walk off the war” to work out the sights, sounds and losses of World War II. Four months later, Shaffer became the first person to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.