AKRON, Ohio — Cecil E. Thayer III plans to spend the next six months walking away his war.
Thayer, 27, of Canton, on Monday began a hike of the Appalachian Trail with 13 other veterans.
“This is a time to just kind of deal with a lot of the issues that I have never really had time to deal with,” Thayer, originally from Massillon, said in an interview shortly before the trip began. A Marine and Ohio Army National Guard veteran who served two tours in Iraq, he received a Purple Heart for injuries sustained in Iraq in 2006.
He and the other veterans entered the nearly 2,185-mile Appalachian Trail in Georgia. They plan to reach Maine sometime in September as part of a group called Warrior Hike and its event called “Walk Off The War.”
Marine Capt. Sean Gobin, a 38-year old Rhode Island native, started the Warrior Hike nonprofit group. He left the service as a 12-year veteran with two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
Gobin, now an MBA student at the University of Virginia, walked the Appalachian Trail in 2012 to raise money for a fellow Marine veteran who lost both legs in combat in 2011. He decided to expand the idea and created the Warrior Hike.
Last year, 14 veterans hiked the Appalachian Trail. This year, along with the group doing that trail, groups in the western United States are hiking the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail.
Thayer, who is working toward a degree in environmental science at Kent State University, took the semester off to take part in the hike. He also operates Veteran Contracting and Painting, which hires veterans for construction and painting jobs.
In 2006, Thayer was thrown off a Humvee. His injuries included several broken ribs, a punctured lung and a traumatic brain injury. He was hospitalized for three months.
Being in combat “takes a toll,” Thayer said, because “you are taught to bottle everything up. You don’t have time to deal with stuff. Regardless of what happens, you have stuff to do.”
When someone is killed “you don’t have the luxury” of dealing with the grief, he said. “Your friend got killed today and you don’t have time. You have to patrol in eight hours.”
Thayer said he lost several friends who were killed and wounded on his first deployment.
“You don’t deal with problems on the spot,” he said. “You bottle it up and what happens is it comes out at the worst possible point, and usually on people you care about.”
He said he hopes to take time during the six-month hike to write a book about the Marine Corps and spend time thinking and decompressing.
Along the route, the group will make about 25 stops to hold fundraisers in conjunction with VFW and American Legion posts. Hikers might stay in hotels during those stops or be put up in private homes, Gobin said.
Gobin said that having a group of veterans hike such a long period together “forces your brain to process all your past life experiences. ... It sets the stage to allow you to come to terms with everything you have experienced.”
Thayer, father of a 3-year old daughter, Lillian, graduated from high school in South Africa, where his parents, Cecil and Kelly, were missionaries. His father is pastor of Massillon Baptist Temple.
Two of his three brothers are in the military: Josh Thayer is a senior airman in the Air Force Reserve and deploys to Afghanistan in April; Aaron is a sergeant in an Ohio Army National Guard unit who recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan.
Thayer said one of his hiking partners is a man who served in the Army in Europe after World War II and will turn 85 during the trek. Others include a Vietnam veteran, an Air Force veteran who served in mortuary affairs, a Coast Guard veteran who worked at Ground Zero after 9/11 and several others who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hikers will carry, on average, 35 pounds on their backs every day. Gobin said they will gain a new “faith in humanity and the common good that exists in people.”
“You lose that while you are in combat,” Gobin said. “You see so many horrible things. ... You come out after six months a completely changed person. It is a reset button for the rest of your life.”