For Army vet, Appalachian Trail hike is part of the mission
The Frederick (Md.) News-Post
KNOXVILLE — Sgt. 1st Class Eric Bourquin hiked a lot of miles through some challenging terrain during his 16 years with the Army. For his latest challenge — hiking the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia — the physical endurance is the easiest part.
Bourquin, 34, of Austin, Texas, is one of two soldiers hiking the 2,180-mile trail to bring awareness to veteran unemployment and post-traumatic stress disorder. He is joined by Capt. Sean Niquette, also of Texas.
“The hiking's pretty easy. I've been doing that forever,” Bourquin said Friday as took a break on a hillside in Knoxville.
His sleeping pad was neatly folded into the top of his 35-pound pack. A pair of rubber sandals — shower shoes that have made it through deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, he said — were bound to the side.
Bourquin and Niquette's journey is documented at HikingHeroes.com. Corporate sponsorship includes The Sterling Group — a veteran-owned recruiting firm — and the French pharmaceutical company Sanofi.
The Army estimates as many as 10 percent to 17 percent of soldiers who deploy may suffer from PTSD. As wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down, the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments are preparing to help soldiers return to civilian life.
But soldiers still face stigma about PTSD from the corporate world, Bourquin said.
“That what I'm out here for to say: Let's be a big team and help all these guys that are coming back,” he said.
Bourquin, who is studying to become a nurse anesthesiologist, was diagnosed with PTSD in 2008. He retired from the Army in April after two deployments to Iraq and one to Afghanistan. He was stationed with the 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division out of Fort Hood, Texas.
He started his Appalachian Trail journey in July and hopes to be home for Thanksgiving. He has already missed enough holidays during his years in the military, he said.
While Bourquin is gone, his wife, Leslie, cares for the couple's four children — three boys under age 7 and a 3-month-old daughter.
“She's the only reason I've been able to work through what I've been through,” Bourquin said of his wife.
While he is here, Bourquin said he plans to visit friends in the area. He will also stop at Arlington National Cemetery to pay his respects to his fallen comrades.
“I've got a pocket full of quarters I've got to out and put on gravestones,” he said, explaining a military tradition. A person places a quarter on the headstone of a service person killed in combat to indicate the two were together when he or she died.
As he hikes, Bourquin said, he also has some friends in mind, including Capt. Chris Heath, a buddy he served with in Afghanistan.
“It's given me the chance to really become introspective and look at everything and understand,” Bourquin said.
“You know, it took 16 years to gain all the experience I had in the military. It's going to take a lot longer than a couple of weeks to sift through it all, understand it and comes to terms with it.”