Meet an FMCA member who leads a nonprofit organization that helps combat veterans transition to civilian life.
By John Johnston, Associate Editor
Sean Gobin, F460890, is a former U.S. Marine armor officer who survived three combat deployments. In 2003, he took part in the invasion of Iraq. In 2005, he battled insurgents in the Iraqi city of Fallujah. And in 2011, he was sent to Afghanistan to train security forces.
Sean, who lives in Thornton, New Hampshire, returned home in the spring of 2012 in one piece. But he was not whole.
“I was really struggling,” said Sean, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “The transition of having to go from the battlefield back to the United States within a 72-hour period, for all three of my deployments, was really jarring. I knew I needed some time and space to kind of clear my head and process everything I’d gone through, and to set me up for success for the next chapter of my life.”
Today, Sean, 41, is CEO of Warrior Expeditions, a nonprofit outdoor therapy program he created to help combat veterans as they transition from military service to civilian life. By the end of last year, 111 veterans had participated.
Warrior Expeditions grew out of Sean’s own post-war experience. Upon returning home a half year before he was scheduled to begin an MBA program at the University of Virginia, he decided to pursue a challenge that had long been on his bucket list: hiking the Appalachian Trail. All 2,185 miles of it, from Georgia to Maine.
A friend and fellow combat veteran joined him. Trekking for eight hours a day, seven days a week, they completed the trail in four and a half months. The hike forced Sean to finally confront, process, and gain control over the traumatic wartime experiences that he had buried deep within him.
“I had no idea it would be such a therapeutic experience,” he said. “About halfway through the trail, I started to realize positive changes were occurring as a result of the hike.” He envisioned that a similar outdoor experience could be beneficial for other veterans returning home from war.
The program he created consists of three key components: Veterans get the time and space to process and to decompress from their wartime experiences; they experience the journey with other veterans facing similar challenges; and they connect with community supporters along the way.
The third component involves people who host veterans for a night as they pass through an area. The vets get a hot meal and a place to clean up and spend the night.
“Veterans who have experienced the absolute worst of humanity during wartime come back with a cynical view of people and humanity,” Sean said. “To experience all the positivity and support of people during a hike re-establishes that basic faith in humanity.”
They named the program Warrior Hike when it began in 2013 with 14 veterans who hiked the Appalachian Trail. They reported therapeutic benefits similar to what Sean had experienced. Word spread, and the program grew.
In 2014, Warrior Hike expanded to include the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail and the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail. In 2015, Warrior Paddle — a canoe trip along the entire length of the Mississippi River — was created for veterans whose injuries prevent them from hiking. Also in 2015, the program began offering hikes of shorter duration within a single state; that makes it easier for veterans to tap a network of supporters close to their homes.
Adaptive bicycling is popular among injured vets, so last year the program expanded again to include a Warrior Bike program that spans the 4,229-mile Trans-America Trail from Virginia to Oregon.
Today, Warrior Expeditions encompasses the hiking, biking, and paddling programs. The organization provides the veterans with all the equipment and supplies needed to complete their journeys. Donations are always welcome; so, too, are people, such as RVers, who can provide logistical support such as food and drinks as veterans hike, bike, or paddle in remote areas.
In the past two years, more than 700 veterans have applied for Warrior Expeditions programs. The organization has the resources — from cash and in-kind donations and corporate sponsorships — to accommodate 40 veterans a year.
So, where does a motorhome fit into all this?
At the start of each journey, Sean spends a week with the veterans, teaching them how to use their gear and doing all he can to ensure their success. That requires him to travel across 35 states each year.
At first, he drove an old military truck. He donated, restored, and converted it into an RV. Breakdowns were frequent. After a catastrophic one, Sean received a call from a donor who generously offered to provide whatever the organization needed. Sean chose a brand-new 2014 Winnebago Travato. Within a year, the Type B motorhome had racked up 60,000 miles.
“I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve stayed at an actual RV park,” Sean said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time I’m boondocking.” He’s married, but his wife, Sandy, rarely joins him on the road, because he’s often gone for a month at a time.
Although there are other outdoors programs for military veterans, most are short-term in duration and may take at most a week to complete. “Not only are we exposing veterans to a new activity to be passionate about,” Sean said, “but the duration of the trips is where a lot of the healing occurs.”
Georgia Southern University researchers partnered with Warrior Expeditions to study the program’s therapeutic effects.
“After their hike, these veterans are more connected socially, have a desire to improve their lives, feel a greater sense of inner peace, and have had time to process and reflect on both their lives and wartime experiences,” said Georgia Southern psychology professor Shauna Joye. “Compared to other combat veterans not in the program, we have found a significant increase in quality of sleep as well as meaningful decreases in anxiety, depression, and PTSD symptoms, as well as an ability to feel the full range of human emotions.”
Diana Brown, an Air Force veteran from Mansfield, Ohio, hiked the Appalachian Trail last year with Warrior Expeditions. The experience was like hitting a reset button, she said. “I rediscovered my adventurous side, my strength and determination, my humanity, and my faith in God.”
For more information about Warrior Expeditions, visit www.warriorexpeditions.org.