Unemployment and post-traumatic stress disorder are just two of the issues veterans face. Retired Sgt. 1st Class Eric Bourquin and Capt. Sean Niquette joined forces with Hiking Heroes to combat the issues, but have discovered things about themselves in the process.
On July 13, the pair embarked on Mission: Appalachian Trail Hike, a journey that will bring them 2,200 miles across 14 states. They began at the trail’s northern point, Mount Katahdin in Maine, and will travel until they reach Georgia in mid-November.
In 2011, Niquette boarded a plane for Iraq in support of Operation New Dawn. He was awarded both the Purple Heart and an Army Commendation Medal with V Device after saving several soldiers following a rocket attack.
Bourquin completed three deployments in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He was awarded two Bronze Star Medals for his efforts to save members of his platoon during an attack that killed or injured one third of his fellow soldiers.
For them, the journey is more than an awareness campaign; it’s part of their assimilation.
“I thought it was a good transition from the military and trying to close out that chapter of my life,” said Bourquin. “It took me a while to build up 15 years of Army, so it will take a while to get out 15 years worth of Army.”
The pair credit their wives, Leslie and Lauren, for supporting and encouraging them along the way.
“She thought it would be really good for me to reset after the Army,” said Niquette.
Bourquin’s wife, Leslie, has also been a strong ally during their 10-year marriage, with his being home for just 6½ years of them.
“She’s just been very supportive of me always, no matter what,” he said. “She’s a strong woman.”
The journey hasn’t been an easy one for the pair, given the physical injuries suffered during their deployments. The rough terrain can be challenging, according to Niquette.
“Both of us are pretty beat up,” he said, noting how difficult the downhill of the trail has been.
Both men have had the nerves burned out of their backs to numb their pain, multiple concussions, and mild traumatic brain injuries. While their wounds make the hike a struggle, their military training has been beneficial to the challenge. They establish “priorities of work” and divide the tasks. Having a trusted partner along the way is also crucial, according to Bourquin.
“There’s no situation I would feel uncomfortable going into with Sean,” he said.
While they are enjoying their experience, both acknowledge the high unemployment rate and have insights on why holding a job can be difficult.
“For a lot of veterans, I think it comes down to transferring skills,” Niquette said.
Bourquin says if he could change one thing about his time, it would be to gain a skill that is useful on the “outside.”
After their journey, they plan to return to their families, continue their educations, and begin a new chapter of life. One thing Bourquin hopes is that more individuals will find ways to be involved in public service to gain not only a better understanding of the troubles veterans face coming home, but also to connect individuals as humans.
“You may not know it, but I’m the guy that was pulling the trigger,” he said before pointing to Niquette. “This is the guy that pulled the trigger for you, the reason that you go to bed at night and lay your head on that pillow. People don’t realize that we’re walking around every day ... we’re right here.”
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