Veteran hikes Sept. 11 trail
LEWISTOWN — The journey began years ago.
Army Sgt. Kevin Wilson was on his second tour of duty in Iraq when he was injured serving his country. Like many returning injured veterans, Wilson had to readjust to civilian life and try to find normal again.
He found a veterans organization called Warrior Expeditions to help with the transition. The Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that up to 20% of post 9/11 veterans suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Warrior Expeditions created the warrior hike, warrior bike and warrior paddle programs to help veterans transition.
“I found Warrior Expeditions in 2015,” Wilson said. “In 2016, they sent me down the Mississippi River. That was when we had our first child. My wife was very supportive for another adventure, and this was a fantastic opportunity.”
That opportunity is walking the September 11th National Memorial Trail. The trail is a 1,300-mile route that links the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville. It embraces the commemorative history of Sept. 11, 2001.
The non-motorized trail offers varied opportunities including walking, hiking, cycling and handicap accessibility as an active memorial honoring those who gave their lives upholding America’s values of freedom and democracy.
Wilson traveled through Lewistown earlier this week. He is making the trek with his dog, Calvin. The dog was trained by America’s VetDogs, an organization that trains and places service dogs for those who are blind or have physical disabilities, and service dogs to help mitigate the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“They trained my last dog as well,” Wilson said. “His name was Samson and sadly just passed away from cancer a few months back. But he did the Mississippi River with me back in 2016 through the same organization.”
Calvin, like his traveling companion, gets a break from time to time.
“The cart I’m pushing is to provide my service dog with a break as necessary in case of injury or tiredness or hot pavement,” Wilson said.
Support from those along the way has helped Wilson in his mission. He will spend some nights at campgrounds, but there have also been nights when local residents, hearing his story, will pay for a motel room. Support from his family plays a vital role as well, especially from his wife Sara.
“She’s an amazingly supportive spouse and has been working as a physical therapist for many years,” Wilson said.
Kevin and Sara have one son, Winston, and another child due later this year.
“Winston is 5 years old but a smart cookie,” Wilson said. “He’s already in first grade and can count in multiple languages. And he is a hiker himself. Baby No. 2 is on the way, due in early December, so I’m on a timeline to get this done. We haven’t hammered down a name for her yet.”
Wilson hopes to reach the finish line by mid-November, and to return home to Surprise, Arizona, to help prepare for the new baby. The timeline on the 1,300-mile hike began Aug. 24 at the Pentagon. Wilson stopped at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville on Sept. 11, marking 21 years since the day when hijacked airplanes struck the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington. It was in Shanksville where passengers and crew managed to crash a plane believed to be aimed for the Capitol in Washington.
“I was very fortunate to make it to the Flight 93 Memorial for the remembrance ceremony on Sept. 11,” he said. “What amazing work they have done to those grounds. It was a beautiful ceremony.”
The stoic reminders of that day are what the hike is all about for Wilson as he travels over mountain trails and periodically stops to enjoy a panoramic vista.
“The goal is to bring awareness and build community support to the September 11th Memorial Trail,” Wilson said. “And how important it is to remember those events and families affected and to pave the way for future generations of veterans to hike and bike the trail with Warrior Expeditions.”
Warrior Expeditions provides veterans with everything required to complete a long distance outdoor expedition at no cost to the veteran. Other routes for veterans to consider are the Appalachian Trail (Georgia to Maine), the Arizona Trail, the Buckeye Trail (Ohio) and the Continental Divide Trail (New Mexico to Montana). Wilson sees himself on another trail sometime in the future.
“Although, baby comes first,” he said. “And then I hope to complete over time both the PCT, and the Appalachian trail, both of which are trails that Warrior Expeditions sends veterans down. Really, I hope more veterans get first dibs to have such life changing experiences and I know they help save veterans lives through these programs and great outdoor recreation on their various trails throughout the U.S.”
As for the current trail and the Nov. 15 completion date, it all depends on Wilson’s pace.
“November 15th-ish,” he said. “That’s if I average 16 miles per day. My low has been nine miles and my high has been 26 up Mount Savage on the Great Allegheny Passage.”
Wilson is recording his account while also helping other veterans share the experience.
“I am raising funds and posting almost daily stories to help send future vets on this and other trails,” he said.
Wilson’s journey can be followed through Warrior Expeditions at warriorexpeditions.org or facebook.com/warriorhike. You can also visit Wilson’s Facebook page, “Calvin’s Chronicle.”