PAWLING, N.Y. — Steve Clendenning served more than 20 years in the Marines, including a fight in 2006 in Fallujah, Iraq, that earned him a Purple Heart.
He's spent the past four months on a different trek, hiking the 2,185-mile Appalachian Trail with other veterans as part of "Walk Off The War," a program to help those who've seen combat make the transition back to civilian life. During a break from the trail on Monday, he said those years spent in uniform make a little more sense now.
"It's just an appreciation of what I've spent 20 years protecting," said Clendenning, of Kokomo, Ind. "I can see it in person, not on television or in pictures. This is a different kind of peace."
Clendenning, 38, and six other veterans made a pit stop in New York, about 800 miles from their final destination in Maine. They set out on March 17 and expect to finish on Sept. 13.
Sean Gobin is a 37-year-old Marine originally from Richmond, R.I., who now lives in Charlottesville, Va. He did three combat tours and hiked the trail last year with another leatherneck, immediately seizing on the benefits of time spent in nature talking with someone who had seen the things he saw.
"Historically, when armies would go and fight abroad, there was always a long journey home, whether it was by boat, on foot or on horseback, and it was during that time the soldiers could decompress from sustained combat experience," Gobin said. "Now, with modern transportation, guys can find themselves back home in literally two or three days."
With veteran suicides reaching alarming levels — the Veterans Administration predicts 22 vets kill themselves each day — Gobin believes every effort should be made to help returning soldiers, Marines and sailors process the experience of combat.
At several stops along the hike, groups like the local Veterans of Foreign Wars or a hiking club will take the hikers in for a hot meal, shower and bed to sleep in.
"The local communities around the trail are supportive of all hikers," Clendenning said. "We mention we're with the warrior hike and everyone's been warm and accepting of us. I don't think I've gotten 50 feet off the trail without somebody offering me a meal. You don't realize how nice people are until you come do something like this."