Two retired Army soldiers hiking the Appalachian Trail have a mission to complete the 2,200-mile journey and to draw attention to issues facing veterans.
They also hope to heal from their own experiences.
Retired Sgt. First Class Eric Bourquin, of Austin, Texas, and retired Capt. Sean Niquette, of Nashville, Tenn., started on the Appalachian Trail at Mount Katahdin, Maine, in mid-July and plan to complete 20 miles a day to reach the end of the trail at Springer Mountain in Georgia by mid-November.
Vesel Interactive, in Fairfield, Conn., selected the two veterans to be the first set of “Hiking Heroes” for their new program to undertake the arduous trek. They are sponsoring the hike along with two other companies: Sanofi and The Sterling Group.
Joe Wesley, a Dolgeville-native and Vesel chief executive officer, said they wanted to help two veterans that have been recently medically discharged and to “help them rebuild their lives.”
Wesley also said the purpose is to draw attention to two critical issues faced by veterans. One, it is to put a spotlight on the high unemployment rate for veterans.
“Unemployment is always too high, but for veterans, it’s even higher,” said Wesley, who is a veteran of the New York Air National Guard in Syracuse. “They’re very valuable employees. They have integrity, loyalty and character, which is what they learn through their military service.”
Wesley added, “We want them to find a meaningful job and to be able to provide for their family.”
The second issue, Wesley said, is to focus on veterans who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which has been diagnosed in Bourquin and Niquette.
“It’s to help them walk off the war,” he said.
Wesley noted only 25 percent of those who set out to do the whole Appalachian Trail actually finish, because the trek can be very challenging. So far, the veterans have hiked approximately 600 miles.
“I wanted to do this as a test … to challenge myself,” said Bourquin, who medically retired from the Army earlier this year.
Bourquin said he also wanted to do it to help other veterans who may be struggling.
“It’s paving the way for guys who need to figure out where to go,” he said.
According to the Hiking Heroes website, Bourquin is going through the Medical Evaluation Board for injuries he sustained during three deployments. He joined the Army after high school and served in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom and in Afghanistan. He earned three bronze stars, two of which were for valor.
Now that he is retired, he wants to become a nurse case manager with the Veterans Administration.
Page 2 of 2 - So far, Bourquin said the hike is going “well.”
“My attitude about it has changed. I was looking at it like work,” he said, noting he is now appreciating the people he meets and talks with along the trail.
Bourquin thanked the support of those sponsoring the trek and especially thanked his wife, Leslie, who is taking care of their four children.
Niquette decided to join the Army after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, though he was only a high school sophomore at the time. He went on to attend West Point, and then served in Iraq as part of Operation New Dawn. In July 2011, he experienced a mild traumatic brain injury during a rocket attack, which killed a non-commissioned officer and injured several others.
Niquette was awarded the Purple Heart for, as he puts in his biography on the Hiking Heroes website, “the bad luck” and an Army Commendation Medal. He also received a bronze star.
“Ultimately, for me, it’s a form of therapy in more ways than you would think,” said Niquette about the hike. “Meeting people along the trail, they’ve been really kind.”
“It restores your faith in humanity,” added Bourquin.
“Yeah,” said Niquette. “After having an experience that’s more difficult, it’s great to do this. It also helps to reconnect with nature.”
Niquette said his wife, Lauren, is currently expecting their first child.
Bourquin and Niquette took a detour from the Appalachian Trail over the weekend to see some the Adirondacks and to visit Dolgeville. Wesley said they did some logging in Oppenheim, and planned to visit Dopp’s Inn for a fish fry while in the area. They also had a chance to meet with Dolgeville Mayor Bruce Lyon, who spoke with the veterans at the village hall on Friday.
“I wish I had an [honorary] key to the village,” said Lyon. “It’s an honor to have you here.”
“We really appreciate the warm welcome from the mayor,” said Wesley.
By Sunday, Bourquin and Niquette planned to be back on the trail.
For more information, including how to support Bourquin and Niquette and where they are on the journey, go to www.hikingheroes.com or to the “Hiking Heroes” Facebook page.