Air Force Veteran Emerald Ralston stepped off the southern point of the Appalachian Trail at Springer Mountain, Georgia, March 19. Since then, she has been hiking, connecting with nature and recovering from a difficult transition out of the military. She’s on a mission to complete the 2,185-mile long trail through the help of Warrior Expeditions.
About Warrior Expeditions
Warrior Expeditions is a Veteran nonprofit outdoor therapy program. They help Veterans transition from their wartime experiences through long distance outdoor expeditions, said Executive Director Sean Gobin. It outfits Veterans with some of the most highly rated equipment, clothing and supplies available from the outdoor retail industry. The gear and skills training then helps Veterans successfully complete the expedition.
The group also shadows Veterans during the first leg of their journey to answer questions and troubleshoot issues. Warrior Expeditions coordinates support in the forms of transportation, lodging and food from community supporters located along the trail.
It offers hikes, bikes and paddles throughout the U.S. Ralston is one of the Veterans taking advantage of the program.
Road to the trail
Born in Texas and raised in Iowa, Ralston joined the Air Force just after her 18th birthday. She graduated from the Defense Information School as a public affairs specialist in 2005, then went to Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana. After four years, she went to Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington. In 2010, she deployed to Afghanistan.
While deployed, Ralston suffered a traumatic event. She applied for a hardship discharge and was a civilian several weeks later.
She said her transition from the military was basically non-existent. Despite the abrupt change, she moved on with her life. She used her GI Bill to earn a psychology degree from Harvard University. Following graduation, she came back to the Air Force as a civilian public affairs specialist and speechwriter.
Ralston took a new job, then realized she needed a change in her life. She said she also needed to deal with post-traumatic stress stemming from her military service. Ralston applied to graduate school and Warrior Expeditions, getting slots in both programs. She then started a routine to work up to the trail.
On the trail
Ralston, whose trail name is “Penguin,” said walking the trail has brought a mixed set of emotions. She said the first day setting off in Georgia was incredible, but she’s appreciative of every day.
“My best moment out here, I would say, every day is the best day ever,” she said.
She also likened the challenges – including rainstorms, violent wind, physical demands and mental demands – to her military service, saying that the experience gives her time to think about her own service, reconciling some of her feelings.
“When you’re out here walking, and often you’re alone, or at least for big portions of the day, you get in your head and a lot starts to come up,” she said. “The mental stuff has been difficult, but really productive.”
As of early June, Ralston was in Pennsylvania, about halfway through her journey. She’s on pace to finish in mid-August, but will have little time to rest. She starts her doctorate program in psychology Aug. 30 at Antioch University New England in Keene, New Hampshire. You can follow here journey at https://www.instagram.com/appalachianemerald/.
Advice for others
She said her advice for other Veterans considering an expedition would be to figure out why they want to do it, then put in the training. She said Veterans should get used to their gear and, much like the military, train as you would fight.
“I would absolutely recommend getting used to the rain,” she said, as raindrops fell on her. “Train physically and train mentally. Just get out there and hike, get out there and just move your body and exercise your mind, and kind of figure out why you want to do it.”
Want to start an adventure?
Warrior Expeditions assists Veterans in the following adventures.
– Appalachian Trail, which is 2,185 miles long and crosses 14 states from Georgia to Maine.
– Continental Divide Trail, which is 3,100 miles long and crosses 5 states from New Mexico to Montana.
– Pacific Crest Trail, which is 2,650 miles long and crosses 3 states from California to Washington.
– Arizona Trail, which is 800 miles long and crosses the state of Arizona.
– Buckeye Trail, which is 1,400 miles long and circles the state of Ohio.
– Florida Trail, which is 1,200 miles long and crosses the state of Florida.
– Ice Age Trail, which is 1,200 miles long and crosses the state of Wisconsin.
– Mountains to Sea Trail, which is 1,200 miles long and crosses the state of North Carolina.
– Great America Rail Trail, which is 3,700 miles long and crosses 12 states from Virginia to Washington.
– Mississippi River, which is 2,320 miles long and crosses 10 states from Minnesota to Louisiana.
Need to get in shape?
Are you a Veteran who needs to get in shape for an adventure? Try these tools to learn about programs to help.
Connect with one of the hundreds of recreational therapists located at VA medical centers across the country. The service supports each Veteran’s self-directed, self-determined, and fully independent participation in their chosen life pursuits.
Whole Health is VA’s cutting-edge approach to care that supports your health and well-being. Whole Health centers around what matters to you, not what is the matter with you. This means your health team will get to know you as a person before working with you to develop a personalized health plan based on your values, needs and goals.
The MOVE! Coach app is a 19-week weight loss program for Veterans, service members, their families and others who want to lose weight. The app helps participants track and receive feedback on their progress with weight, diet and exercise goals.
#LiveWholeHealth Self-Care blog post series provides self-care practices you can enjoy on demand.
Start your training by connecting with the National Park Service. Connect with national parks from anywhere through virtual experiences or visit a nearby park. Remember to plan your trip and check for changes in operations before departing. Please also see the latest safety guidance for visiting parks and recreating responsibly.