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Volunteers supporting warrior hikers

Appalachian Trail Warrior Expedition Hiker volunteers Van Hovey, Carrie Hovey, Diane Vaillancourt, Molly Smolko and Ludwig Pesch are looking for more volunteers this year for the Appalachian Trail Warrior Expedition Hikers. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

Among the many hikers expected to visit Unicoi County in the coming months, one group is hiking with a purpose. The 2020 Appalachian Trail Warrior Hikers are set to take to the trail starting out on March 18 from Springer Mountain, Georgia.

According to the Appalachian Trail Warrior Expedition Hikers history, the idea of sponsoring soldiers on the trail came following the first hiker and veteran who hiked the entire Appalachian Trail to heal from the trauma of war. In 1948, Earl 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, Earl Shaffer became the first person to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.

Following in Earl Shaffer’s footsteps and in recognizing the therapeutic effects of long-distance outdoor expeditions, Warrior Expeditions created the Warrior Hike, Warrior Bike and Warrior Paddle programs which are designed to help veterans transition from their wartime experiences.

This year’s group of 10 hikers includes Benjamin Blume of Houston, Texas; Michael Coleman of Fayetteville, North Carolina; Donald Downey of Jacksonville, North Carolina; Harry Gardner of Pooler, Georgia; Jacob Moss of Johnson City; Amity Quinones of Tampa, Florida; John Reardon of Youngstown, Ohio; Christopher Reeves of League City, Texas; Shannon Shaver of Mound, Minnesota; and James Sink of Fort Mitchell, Alabama.

The 2020 Applachian Trail Warrior Expedition Hikers have their work cut out to top last year’s group.

“Last year we had seven out of the 10 Appalachian Trail Warrior Expedition Hikers make it the entire way; it was one of our most successful years thanks in large part to the Appalachian Trail supporters,” Appalachian Trail Warrior Expedition Hikers Director of Operations East Natalie Koffarnus said.

One local group of Appalachian Trail supporters will be providing shelter and amenities for the warriors when they reach Erwin. Unicoi County residents Diane Vaillancourt, Molly Smolko, Ludwig Pesch and Van and Carrie Hovey are back for the second year to provide housing and other necessities for the Applachian Trail Warrior Expedition Hikers and they recently sat down with The Erwin Record to discuss their past experiences and what are some upcoming needs for this year’s group.

For Pesch and Smolko, both of whom are veterans, it was crucial that they gave back to the warrior hikers.

“I had never heard of the program before, but when Diane (Vaillancourt, who is also a veteran,) came to a Friends of Rocky Fork meeting looking for volunteers to house the hikers, I said sign me up,” Smolko said.

Pesch soon followed.

“I couldn’t believe they wanted to walk the trail, but since they were veterans, I volunteered right away,” Pesch said.

According to the Hoveys, the opportunity to welcome the warrior hikers into their home was an easy decision.

“We got involved. We thought it would be a great idea,” Van Hovey said. “I’m a hiker, not a through hiker, and I am aware of the redemptive qualities of walking in the woods.”

Carrie Hovey jumped at the idea to house the warrior hikers.

“We are not veterans, but we know plenty of people who have served. I know a person who is currently deployed and I know how difficult that is and I know the restorative qualities of being out in nature and having a chance to be a part of that. We have the privilege to help,” Carrie Hovey said. “We moved here because we love the mountains, and we wanted to share that and this was the perfect way to share.”

For Vaillancourt, taking on the task as an organizer has been personally fulfilling.

“I took this on and never looked back. I’m a member of Friends of Rocky Fork so after I committed to housing all 10 of the warriors, I went to our friends’ meeting and sought out volunteers,” Vaillancourt said. “I made a checklist and we got together and we pulled it off.”

This year the group has a better idea of what supplies the warrior hikers enjoy most.

“They really loved the trail mix, and backpacking food from Mountain House Foods. I know they have them at the Erwin Outdoor Supply,” Carrie Hovey said. “I know those are the ones that Brandy (Bevins the owner) of Erwin Outdoor Supply provided in the care packets that Erwin Outdoor Supply provided.”

According to Van Hovey, comfort food is also very appreciated by the warrior hikers.

“One of our visitors just wanted Taco Bell,” Van Hovey said. “Through hiking is not the easiest thing in the world, and if you get the opportunity to get shelter, a hot meal and a place to shower you take it.”

The Unicoi County Appalachian Trail supporters are seeking volunteers to provide shelter and donate items that the hikers can use.

“We are looking for a few more volunteers to be available to house some warrior hikers and we are always looking for things to give to the hikers,” Vaillancourt said.

Van Hovey acknowledged that the warrior hikers come in on a staggered basis.

“The group breaks into smaller groups and they make their way into town throughout the month of April, so you really need to be flexible for the month of April if you commit to volunteering,” Van Hovey said.

If you are interested in sponsoring the warrior hikers, please contact Diane Vaillancourt at [email protected]

To learn more about Appalachian Trail Warrior Expedition Hikers, please visit warriorexpeditions.org.