PORTLAND, Ore. - A John Day Lock and Dam crane operator set out for a hike one day on the Appalachian Trail. It was a long hike. Six weeks and 1,100 miles later, Kevin Kitchen, an Air Force veteran, and his hiking partner Army veteran Eric Bourquin reached the marker at end of the trail, adding their names to the list of people who have made the same trek.
Their journey, sponsored by the Hiking Heroes Foundation, was intended to bring awareness to two issues many veterans struggle with: unemployment and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“It’s amazing,” said Kitchen. “You go through parts of Virginia and they have never been around people in the military. All they know is what they see on the news; they have no idea what PTSD truly is.”
Bourquin began the hike July 11 at the northern end of the trail at Mount Katahdin, Maine, with Army veteran Sean Niquette. It’s not an easy hike; the Appalachian Trail Conservancy website reports the trail is about 2,180 miles long and stretches through 14 states, from Maine to Georgia. Halfway into the hike Niquette had to fall out; that’s when Kitchen stepped up to support Bourquin’s quest to finish the trail.
“This is something I firmly believe in,” said Kitchen. “Eric needed someone to hike with him and I couldn’t leave him out there on his own.”
Kitchen is an Air Force veteran who still takes his “wingman” responsibilities seriously. He spent much of his military career on combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan; missions where looking out for the airman or soldier serving next to you becomes second nature. His devotion to duty earned him awards and recognition, including a Presidential Citation and a Bronze Star with Valor.
The Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD says between 11 and 20 percent of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan may experience post traumatic stress. Kitchen is one of those veterans.
“I have my days, but it’s not a bad thing,” said Kitchen. “[I am able to] function and do a job with post traumatic stress.”
He carried that message with him as he hiked the trail, meeting people of all ages from all walks of life.
“I talked to doctors, students, business people,” said Kitchen. “I told them to be aware. There are a lot of younger people out there who have post traumatic stress, but it doesn’t make them unemployable.”
In recent years, unemployment rates for veterans who served since 9/11 have hovered around 10 percent, but according to statistics released by the U.S. Department of Labor in December, it’s getting a little better as more employers hire veterans.
Veterans returning to civilian life and jobs bring a lot to the table. In addition to job skills acquired in the military, veterans have reliable work ethics, communication and leadership skills -- and they work well on teams.
Kitchen began working for the Portland District nearly two years ago. He is one of only four crane operators on the John Day structural crew. When he asked to join the hike his supervisor wasn’t sure they could manage without him.
“Kevin came in my office on a Tuesday morning and said ‘I have an opportunity to help another veteran,” said Mike Decker, John Day Lock and Dam Structural Crew Supervisor. “My interest was piqued. So I asked how long are we talking about?”
Kitchen was talking about a six week commitment and would need to leave on Thursday, just two days later.
“It was right in the middle of our busiest season,” said Decker. “The holidays were coming up, too. I wasn’t sure we could do it. It would be a hardship for the entire crew.”
Decker thought about it overnight; he visited www.hikingheroes.com, the Hiking Heroes website. As he learned more about their mission he felt he needed to try to find a way to let Kitchen go, but he needed his crew’s support.
“Probably 95 percent of our crew members are veterans,” said Decker. “So when one veteran said that they were going to help another veteran they were all-in. They said they would do what they needed to do to support it.”
Two days later Kitchen was on his way to Virginia to catch up with Bourquin and complete a hike for which most people spend months training.
“Prior to this, I told my girlfriend I would never hike again, or camp,” said Kitchen. “I had no interest in either when I got out of the military.”
It had been a few years since his last military deployment, but this quick deployment felt familiar in some ways.
“I’ve been in that mindset enough before, where you just kind of forget about everything else and focus on the mission at hand,” he said.
Kitchen said in addition to spreading awareness and promoting understanding of PTSD and veteran unemployment, the hike gave him some time to decompress, gave him a chance to clear his mind and focus on just one thing: reaching the end of the trail.
“It was time for me just to let go of everything and just think about walking and where I was going to sleep the next night,” said Kitchen. “It was easy. I didn’t have a million things going at one time.”
That said he doesn’t plan to do take a walk like this again anytime soon.
“It gets to be like tunnel vision out there, too. I mean, all you’re doing is walking,” said Kitchen.
There’s a lot to be said about the benefits of taking a nice, long walk. For this hiking hero, those benefits included increasing awareness and understanding for his fellow veterans and how PTSD can affect them. And some long walks, like Kitchen and Bourquin’s, bring you to the end of the Appalachian Trail.