Suicide awareness hike a personal journey for Army reservist, mother
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — For peace of mind, Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Ilene Henderson is feeling the need "to walk off the war."
Her hiking boots are waiting to be laced.
Come Saturday, Henderson and her mother, Inge, plan to embark on a 2,180-mile hike of the Appalachian Trail to raise awareness of the rising suicide rate among veterans and to undergo some emotional rehabilitation.
Ilene Henderson is eager to heal mentally from yearlong deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and physically from a bad run of medical issues cause by a burst appendix.
"As of late," she said, "I feel like I need to get away. Like (Earl) Shaffer, I feel like I need to walk off the war."
Shaffer was the first documented person to walk the hiking route, from north Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine, in one journey in 1948 after completing his service during World War II. He said he wanted to "walk the Army out of (his) system."
When the trail was completed in 1937, nobody envisioned anyone hiking the entire distance. But Shaffer, who drew national attention, finished in four months, four hours.
The Hendersons are granting themselves a maximum seven months to make the "thru-hike" after their scheduled departure from Springer Mountain, Ga. The 65-year-old matriarch of the family said, "I'm going to take it one step at a time."
As they rack up the mileage by foot, daughter and mother will be raising money for Stop Soldier Suicide. All proceeds are earmarked for the nonprofit group that works to curb suicide attempts among active-duty soldiers and veterans.
Each day, an active-duty soldier and 22 veterans are taking their own lives, Stop Soldier Suicide states on its website.
According to the largest study ever conducted on suicide in the military published March 3 by The Journal of American Medical Association Psychiatry, the suicide rates rose dramatically among soldiers who went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan and those who never left the United States. Among the study's key findings: Suicide rates for soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan more than doubled from 2004 to 2009 to over 30-per-100,000. At the same time, the trend among those who never deployed nearly tripled to between 25- and 30-per-100,000.
For Henderson, 40, the cause is personal.
She lost two friends to suicide.
"They were both dealing with life after war, in general," she said. "And life after war, in general, is challenging."
One was a sergeant first class in the 20th Special Forces Group (Airborne) of the Army National Guard; the other was a sergeant in the Army Reserve. Like Henderson, she witnessed war first-hand.
"Everything I've been through, I can completely understand someone feeling that's their only option,'' Henderson said from her home near Fort Bragg. "I can understand how someone is driven to do that."
She first served in the Army from 1994 through 1999, with Fort Bragg's 525th Military Intelligence Brigade (Airborne) her second duty assignment. From 1999 through 2005, she served in the Georgia National Guard. Since then, Henderson has been a member of the Army Reserve.
In 2003, she deployed to Afghanistan. Four years later, she was pulling a tour of duty in Iraq. In November 2007, while serving as a team leader of a tactical human intelligence team in Salman Pak, Iraq, her appendix started to rupture. She shrugged it off, thinking it was something she had eaten, and went out on a mission.
"I'm a paratrooper," she said. "You drink some water and move on."
Once her temperature spiked to 103 degrees and it was too painful to walk, Henderson was flown to the Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad where she had the first of three surgeries. Complications ensued, and doctors discovered that she had picked up a drug-resistant E. coli strain during her initial deployment to Afghanistan. Once her appendix burst, infection started to spread into her abdominal cavity.
Doctors later told her they didn't think she was going to make it.
"It has been a real struggle to recover from that," she said.
During their planned trek along the Appalachian Trail, they'll be sleeping in tents. On occasion, Henderson said, they may opt for a hot shower and warm bed in a hotel or hostel.
The Hendersons will carry supplies in backpacks, roughly weighing 36.6 pounds apiece. Among their possessions will be the tent, sleeping bags, stove, an initial seven-day supply of food, canteen cups, toenail clippers, chapstick, sun hats, rain jackets, sunglasses and — what do you expect — toilet paper.
The hikers anticipate averaging about 10 miles a day through what's largely wilderness.
"The biggest threat on the trail is not bears like a lot of people think, but the ticks," Inge Henderson said.
The two of them take the threats of acquiring Lyme disease through deer ticks or West Nile virus from infected mosquitoes seriously.
"We're doing it all the way. Straight through," the elder Henderson said.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy says that of 2,000 who attempt to hike the trail each year, only about 400 complete it.
"We're going to be one of the 400," Inge Henderson proclaimed. "We're going to finish."
Her daughter concurred, "Yes, we're going to finish."