How do you write about a life-changing journey so that it makes sense to someone else? I struggle immensely with doing so, which in the end is how I know it truly is a life-changing journey. If my taking on hiking for 204 Virginia fallen soldiers was just about hiking, it would be easy to describe the how and why. However, as I plan my 100th tribute I know in my heart and soul this journey is now about so much more than hiking. It’s about saying thank you, recognizing the loss to our country and promising to always remember the sacrifices.
My hiking for Virginia’s fallen heroes started out purely by accident. I was searching the Internet for an op-ed published in the Washington Post and was mistakenly taken to the Washington Post Faces of the Fallen page. Instead of returning to my original search, I sat staring at the faces of American heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan while serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn and Operation Enduring Freedom. I could not move. All I could think of was here are the faces of 6750 Americans that held hopes and dreams, and had families, friends, and loved ones waiting for them to return home safely. But they did not return home safely. I cannot even begin to comprehend the depth of sorrow experienced with that kind of loss. After clicking on my home state of Virginia I learned that 204 brave Virginians made the ultimate sacrifice and for reasons I may never know or understand, from that moment on my life has not been the same.
I have been asked many times why I am hiking for Virginia fallen heroes. The answer is not a noble one and certainly does not rise to the level of respect our fallen heroes deserve. The honest truth is I had no idea 204 Virginians made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan and Iraq after doing the job our country asked them to do. I believe as an American, a military spouse, and certainly as a Virginian, I should have known. I was so busy in my everyday life that I failed to remember that Americans are in harm’s way every day in far away places. And I certainly failed to say thank you to those who sacrificed it all whether the ultimate sacrifice or those returning with lasting physical and psychological injuries. Hiking For Virginia Fallen Heroes is my way of saying thank you and that I will never forget their service.
Hiking was a logical choice for me as a tribute because I love the outdoors and frankly have never made the time to really see our State. At 55 years of age, some of the hikes, especially those on the Appalachian Trail continue to challenge me. My longest and by far hardest hike to date was the Three Ridges Trail along the AT in the George Washington National Forest. I did Tributes that day for Staff Sgt. Christopher Cabacoy from Virginia Beach, Staff Sgt. James Newman from Richmond, Spec. Moranne McBeth from Fredericksburg, and Pfc. Benjamin Park from Fairfax Station, all of which were memorable. The weather was less than optimal, fog and rain showers plagued the hike. I also suffered through painful blisters, a novice mistake that I will never make again.
Another novice hiking mistake I made was tackling two rough hikes in the same day. Because I have limited opportunities to get to the AT, I try to make the most of them when I am there. Last summer I hiked both the Crabtree Falls Trail for Lance Cpl. Cody Childers from Chesapeake and Pfc. Tramaine Billingsly from Portsmouth, and the Spy Rock Trail for Chief Warrant Officer Dwayne Moore of Williamsburg, both hikes are located in the George Washington National Forest. While working my way up Crabtree Falls Trail, I knew I was tired from hiking Spy Rock Trail just hours before. I had reached my limit and was close to believing I could not take another step. I stopped to rest my burning legs and catch my breath when tears filled my eyes as I knew I was letting the heroes down that I was hiking for. I was hiking for 19 year old Lance Cpl. Cody Childers from Chesapeake. I was exhausted and had nothing left. I cannot explain what happened next, and won’t blame you if you don’t believe me, however I felt a sudden surge in my body and it was as if someone had taken my legs and was pushing them, and I know you skeptics are out there and what you are thinking. The truth is it did happen and I continued on to finish the trail and complete Lance Cpl. Childers’ Tribute. I like to think it was Lance Cpl. Childers who helped me that day. I eventually met Lance Cpl. Childers’ mother and of course like me, she was convinced it was her “Cody” who offered the extra encouragement.
To date my favorite two completed hikes are Bull Run in Bull Run Regional Park and Flat Top, one of the two “Peaks of Otter” along the Blue Ridge Trail. Each hike resulted in fitting Tributes for Lance Cpl. Naill Cortisears from Arlington and Spec. Douglas Green from Sterling. Bull Run was a tough trail with a steep climb, however the view was worth every second. I hit the lottery the day I hiked Flat Top. The day yielded clear blue skies and a warm summer breeze. It was spectacular and made the hike memorable for me. As a novice hiker I have learned that much like the labor pains of childbirth, the pain involved in a steep climb coupled with altitude gains are all but forgotten when the reward is a breathtaking view of our beautiful state.
I have found several well-kept secrets during my hiking journeys. The George Washington Birthplace National Monument Trail in Colonial Beach came as quite a surprise. It is majestic and serene and made for a perfect tribute for Staff Sgt. Jesse Clowers from Herndon. In addition, Wildcat Mountain Trail in Northern Virginia is truly a hidden treasure. I picked this hike to honor Cpl. Joshua Stricklen from Virginia Beach and Maj. Joseph T. McCloud from Alexandria. The soldiers were traveling in the same helicopter when it went down, therefore I wanted to honor them together. I later learned from Cpl. Stricklen’s mother, the two soldiers were good friends.
I have completed 100 tributes on 90 plus different Virginia trails with 104 left to complete. When I complete the final Tribute, my journey will end. I will have paid tribute and thanked Virginia’s fallen heroes, which initially was all I expected to do. The unexpected gift has been making so may friends along the way and experiencing the beauty and wonder in our great state.
How or why I landed on that page months ago will remain a mystery to me. You can draw your own conclusions as to how I started on this journey: divine intervention, or an accidental landing on an Internet site that led to an instantaneous idea that grew into a year long journey. I’m pretty sure I know the answer. Either way, the journey amazes me and humbles me on a regular basis. It truly is my honor and now passion to make this humble offering of thanks to our heroes. I continue to hike on.
You can join the journey at Hiking For Virginia Fallen Heroes on Facebook at www.facebook.comhikingforVAfallenheroes.com