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Combat veterans embark on ‘maiden voyage’

Veterans participating in the Walk Off the War program begin a canoe trip to travel the length of the Mississippi River starting at Itasca State Park on Monday. (Jean Ruzicka/Enterprise)

Canoeists set off down the Mighty Mississippi from Itasca Monday on a “maiden voyage” for Warrior Paddle.   The “Walk Off the War” program, initiated in 2012 by former Marine Sean Gobin of Charlottesville, Va., is designed to support combat veterans transitioning from their military service by thru-hiking America’s National Scenic Trails.   This is the first river excursion.

 “We’re the guinea pigs,” said Abby Kaeser, arriving from Indiana. She will chronicle the veterans’ 2,300-mile kayaking journey, which is expected to end in November.  Based on what’s determined from the journey, this may serve as a prototype expedition for disabled veterans in the future.  Historically, military personnel experienced a lengthy journey home after fighting abroad. During this time, personnel would process and come to terms with their wartime experience. But with modern transportation, soldiers leaving combat zones can find themselves home within days.  In 2012, after returning home from three combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, Gobin hiked the 2,185 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Recognizing the therapeutic effects of long-distance hiking, he created the program designed to support veterans transitioning from military service by hiking – and now kayaking.  There is no cost to participants. It’s open to all honorably discharged veterans, Kaesar explained.  Canoeist Annie Balthazar of West Virginia served 12 years in the Air Force as a nurse anesthetist in Iraq, retiring as a lieutenant colonel-select.

 “We were bombed 106 times,” she said being stationed in Balad. “It was absolute chaos. IEDs tore up our troops,” she said of improvised explosive devices.  Balthazar’s last tour was in 2005; she left the military in 2007 and is working for the Veterans Administration. Her “river gal” email address led to the invitation from Gobin to paddle down the river.  Bart Lindberg, 27, of Brainerd, served a four-year Army tour supporting Operation Enduring Freedom with a combat tour.  “I’ve been around the world,” he said stints in Iran, Dubai, Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar. “It’s an amazing experience, there are great things about the military, but I couldn’t make a lifestyle out of it.”  He sees the voyage as a time for “retraining and preparing my mind for the future.”  Vietnam vet and retired air traffic controller Mark Fox, 63, of Eagan said his experience on the water has been at the wheel of a powerboat.  “I hope this isn’t the Titanic,” he joked Monday. “Actually it’s more like Noah’s ark.”

 Outdoor outfitters provide veteran participants with the necessary equipment - from canoes to tents to sleeping bags at no cost.  Six days of the week will be spent in the great outdoors. Once a week they will be hosted by VFW members in cities along the river who will provide lodging and food for a night.  “We’ll be self-sufficient,” Kaeser said. The canoes are outfitted with wheels for easier portage.  “But mileage goals may drastically change,” she said.  Plans call for posting photos daily on warriorhike via Facebook and Kaesar will blog at abbykaeser.com.  Meanwhile, Walk off the War continues to gain followers, founder Gobin recently named Hero of the Week by CNN.  “It’s therapeutic, decompressing from time overseas,” said Gobin, who arrived at Itasca State Park for the send-off Monday.  “We work toward a goal of camaraderie, talking to other vets or just enjoying the aspects of the great outdoors,” he said.  “This is a welcoming society,” he said of the support he’s witnessed for the program.  

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