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Halfway to home

Orange veteran finding himself again as he hikes Appalachian Trail with comrades

Joe Young embarked on a long-distance hike to heal from the trauma of serving in war.
file photo courtesy of Joe Young

Joe Young embarked on a long-distance hike to heal from the trauma of serving in war. file photo courtesy of Joe Young

ORANGE — An Orange veteran who left for Georgia on March 14 to start a six-month, 2,180-mile trek along the Appalachian Trail with 13 other veterans hit the halfway mark last weekend, and plans to be on Mount Greylock in North Adams in late July.

And his communion with nature — and himself — seems to be having an effect.

“The old Joe is coming back,” said Joseph Young’s wife, Andrea Heckman-Young, on Monday. “I can hear it in his voice.”

Young, 61, calls his wife every other day or so, unless he’s on a section of the trail that doesn’t have cell phone service.

Before he set out in March, Young said he had “lots of demons to face and fight.” He retired as a sergeant major from the National Guard after 421/ 2 years, including two tours in Iraq from 2003 to 2004 and 2005 to 2006. He served some of that time at Abu Ghraib prison.

“He’s doing just that — facing those demons,” said his wife. “This trip is working. I can tell.”

They said Young suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, a type of anxiety disorder that occurs after someone has gone through an extreme emotional trauma — often including the threat of injury or death.

Before he left in March, Young said many veterans hike the Appalachian Trail to find a vital piece of themselves they lost somewhere along the way.

“I lost mine in Iraq,” he said. “I hope that sometime during my six-month hike with 13 other veterans I find that piece of my soul I’m looking for.”

Young had to leave the trail for two weeks in June because he fell and bruised his hip. His wife said he was a little discouraged, because he won’t tally the 2,180 miles he wanted to, but after some physical therapy at home, he eagerly returned to his group on Father’s Day weekend.

“They were in Pennsylvania, about 10 miles north of Gettysburg,” said Heckman-Young. “He couldn’t wait to get back, but while he was home he spent time with his kids and grandkids. He hasn’t really wanted to interact before. It was so nice to see.”

Heckman-Young said her husband told her he wants to spend at least one day a month with family.

“What a change!” she said.

Heckman-Young said it wasn’t that he avoided family because he didn’t like or love them, it was because of those demons.

“They kept him down,” she said. “Now, he really seems to be enjoying himself.”

Young is “through-hiking” the AT, from Spring Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, and hopes to reach Katahdin’s summit in September.

He is hiking with other veterans as part of the Warrior Hike’s “Walk Off the War” program for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The avid hiker, who is in the best shape of his life according to his wife of 42 years, said he found it difficult to re-adjust to civilian life when he retired from the Guard several years ago.

Young said he went back to school at Greenfield Community College, but couldn’t shake the demons.

“Last year, while perusing the Internet, I found the Warrior Hike and immediately contacted organizers,” he said earlier this year. “I thought it was worth a try.”

“He’s been crying on the trail and he has cried on the phone,” said Heckman-Young through her own tears. “I just let him do it. It’s good for him.”

She said she has not seen her husband cry in 11 years.

Heckman-Young said on the days she doesn’t hear from Young she reads his online journal entries.

“He posts almost every day,” she said.

His wife said she doesn’t believe anyone would recognize her husband at this point.

For one thing, “He has a god-awful beard,” she said.

Heckman-Young said for several reasons, including comfort, her husband is hiking in a kilt most days.

“A couple of guys are doing that,” she said. “It’s funny, but it’s Joe.”

The retired soldier said before he left that he planned to let his hair and beard grow and would wait to shave and cut his hair until he returns home in September.

Young’s trail name is Quabbin Trekker and you can read his journal entries at:

www.trailjournals.com/joe

On Twitter, follow Tracey Prohaska-Carroll: @RecorderTPC

Dear Joe, PTSD can be thought of as a normal human response to abnormal and tragic human experiences. You served your country, and part of that was being put in the position of witnessing violence, tragedy, and the suffering of human beings, while fearing for your own and your friends safety. Bless you for all you did on behalf of your nation, and the profound losses that attend such service. Safe travels, and loving wishes for healing and well-being. Hope you have a wonderful journey, and feel contained and supported in the land that you have served. May the beauty of the trail, and the simplicity of the journey restore your soul and nurture you. And thanks to your family too.

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