two paths converged on the trail

Appalachian Trail Brings Veteran and Civilian Students Together in Spirit of Service

By Kathy Strickland

Appalachian Trail Tent

When Kenny Wall started at the University of Central Missouri after four years in the Marines, his daily routine was to go to class, then back to his truck to sit and wait for the next class. He had a tough time relating to classmates who enrolled fresh out of high school and had only seen in movies what he had experienced in Afghanistan.

“I didn’t come to college wanting to make friends or get involved,” Wall says. “I just wanted to get my degree and get out.”

A fellow veteran in one of Wall’s classes told him about the university’s Military and Veterans Success Center and finally persuaded him to visit. But it wasn’t until the next fall, when Wall heard other veterans talking about a service learning trip they had gone on over the summer, that he realized he really could use the camaraderie.

Chris Stockdale introduced the trip to UCM in June 2015 when he was hired as department chair of academic enrichment for the College of Education, where he later became associate dean. As an Army veteran who served in Bosnia and Kosovo, Stockdale knew firsthand about the struggle to transition from military to civilian life. He also knew from experience that veteran students would most likely not sign up for any extracurricular activity that they did not see themselves reflected in. Like Wall and many others, Stockdale did not participate in a single student activity or athletics event during his time as an undergraduate.

“Certain populations who are not in the majority, including veterans, need to see someone who looks like them on that flyer,” Stockdale explains. “They need to know that this program is for me, and I’m not going to be the one veteran in a group of civilians and feel like an outsider.”

While completing his doctorate in curriculum and instruction at the University of South Dakota, Stockdale became the school’s director of service learning programming. He distinctly remembers when two veteran students walked into his office and asked him what he was going to do for them. Although these students were eligible to participate in any of the numerous service trips the university offered, they did not identify with those opportunities. Stockdale asked the vets to find something that interested them, and they came back with the Appalachian Trail.

Appalachian Trail map

The longest hiking-only trail in the world, the Appalachian Trail extends roughly 2,200 miles across 14 states, six national parks and eight national forests. Each year more than 3 million outdoor enthusiasts hike a portion of the trail, and a small fraction — about 20,000 to date, known as “2,000 milers” — complete the entire journey from Georgia’s Springer Mountain to Maine’s Mount Katahdin. The first person in recorded history to hike the whole trail was Earl Shaffer, a World War II veteran, who said when embarking on the 124-day journey in 1948, “I’m going to walk off the war.”

Not only is the Appalachian Trail the longest in the world, but the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is the largest and longest-running volunteer conservation project in the world. For the past four years UCM has been a part of this effort, and students have logged more than 2,000 volunteer hours maintaining and rebuilding the trail. The first year there were eight participants, all of whom were veterans. But Stockdale says the goal for UCM’s trip was always to have a mix of military and civilian participants — a goal achieved last year with an even distribution among the 18 students.

“You’re going to have to work with people in your careers who are different from you, and being able to accept different viewpoints, even if you don’t agree with them, is an important skill,” Stockdale says. “We wanted to have some intercultural dialogue between these populations to dispel stereotypes and break down some of the walls.”

Appalachian Trail Setting

Breaking Barriers … and Boulders

By the time Wall felt ready to apply for the Appalachian Trail trip in the summer of 2018, he had made a few good friends at the Military and Veterans Success Center and was eating lunch there instead of in his truck. But he still hadn’t broken out of this core group to talk with civilian students on campus. He had a hard time seeing his nonmilitary peers’ daily trials and tribulations as meaningful.

“I had the mentality that nothing about this is stressful … you’re worried about a five-page paper, and I’ve been in firefights,” Wall recalls.

On the flip side, Marissa Ginger felt she couldn’t relate to her veteran counterparts “because they’ve done, in my eyes, some things that are much harder than I could have ever done.” Ginger, a traditional student who graduated in May with a bachelor’s in biology, applied to go on the summer 2018 trip during her freshman year after hearing about the opportunity from a park naturalist at Knob Noster State Park. When Ginger set off on the overnight 13-hour van ride to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s Konnarock base camp in southwest Virginia, she was the youngest person on board.

It wasn’t long before Ginger’s perception of what she could do changed drastically. After learning the basic techniques of trail building from the Konnarock crew (and showering for what would be everyone’s last time that week), the two UCM teams, accompanied by Appalachian Trail Conservancy crew leaders, split off to their respective work sites in Georgia and Tennessee. With sledgehammers, axes and stone cutters in tow, they hiked three hours to their destination, then got started crushing rocks and cutting wood to make steps. To Ginger, it was literally moving mountains.

“It was the first thing I’ve done in my life that was physically demanding, that demanded all of my attention,” she says. “I couldn’t just daydream and work at the same time because we had to move a 3-ton boulder, and there was no room for a lack of focus. … Hikers are going to be on the trail and actually take this tiny step that took seven people to build.”

It was hard work for the entire team, and this common struggle brought different walks of life together, including Wall and Ginger. At the end of an eight-hour day of hard physical labor, after hiking three hours back to camp, they were ready to eat and relax. The day ended with a group reflection, where everyone was expected to share. The first few nights, reflection revolved around the day’s physical challenges. But then the conversation shifted from the toughest thing participants did on the trail to the most difficult thing they’d done in their lives. Wall, a man of few words, surprised himself and others by eventually opening up.

“You can hit your physical breaking point or your mental breaking point, and that’s what sparks conversation,” Wall says. “There is a lot of learning that occurs on a personal level out there that you would never get just here [in college] because you have to take your time to do it. … This trip has changed how I view people; I give them a second look and think a little bit more on why people are the way they are.”

Appalachian Trail donor bricks

BRINGING IT HOME

Not only did the Appalachian Trail experience make a lasting impact for future hikers, but it also changed Wall’s life. When he returned from the trip, he became vice president and then president of UCM’s Student Veteran Organization (SVO). His goal in revitalizing the SVO was to help veterans avoid feeling isolated and alone. One way he strives to ease this common transition from military to college life is by involving civilian students in the SVO’s volunteer projects.

“That way [veterans are] getting those one-on-one interactions with the students they really didn’t feel any connection to,” Wall says. “Through working on that common goal of helping other veterans in the community, they’re starting to build relationships and learn about each other and be able to communicate better because we’re a team out there.”

Finding friends was the last thing on Wall’s mind when he enrolled at UCM, but he has made a true bond with Jim Ferguson, an Air Force veteran he met at the center who served six deployments over 14 years, including in Afghanistan and Iraq. Ferguson is nearly 20 years older than Wall and has three young children. But Wall says, “Our experience almost makes us the same age, because maturity level is very much different when you go through things like that.”

Now these two nontraditional students have gone through a life-changing experience together. Wall and Ginger both became leaders on the 2019 trip, and Wall led Ferguson’s team. Ferguson has since followed in Wall’s footsteps as the current president of the SVO, inviting veterans and civilians alike to join together in service.

“We don’t want to look like a stand-offish group,” says Ferguson, who is majoring in engineering. “We want people to come in to see and get to know us and find out what we’ve been through and bridge the gap.”

At an August reunion after the 2019 Appalachian Trail trip, every individual vowed to undergo a service project in their community. Wall and Ferguson are working together with Camp Valor Outdoors, a nonprofit providing outdoor recreational opportunities for ill and injured veterans, to build a village of “tiny homes” for homeless vets in Holden, Missouri. It is estimated that 1 in 10 homeless people in America is a veteran, and there are more than 500 homeless vets in Missouri. The project is a smaller-scale version of the Veterans Community Project in Kansas City, and volunteers have built three 320-square-foot homes so far in Holden.

“In the military, you have a clear mission,” says Stockdale. “A lot of research with veterans, especially the ones who struggle when they get out, shows that they lost their mission. … These are people who have already dedicated their lives to service, so service learning is a perfect bridge. We go out and get everyone supercharged to be servants of their community, and they bring all that home tenfold.”

Stockdale also points out that volunteers are aging out, and research shows if you volunteer in college you will continue lifelong because you’re building a habit. Wall knows service will always be the driving force in his life. After earning his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice this past December, Wall is now pursuing a master’s in UCM’s College Student Personnel Administration (CSPA) program so he can help other veterans the way the Military and Veterans Success Center helped him.

“To say that there has been a huge change because of that trip is really an understatement,” Wall reflects. “I am not the same person I was before I went on the Appalachian Trail trip. … I think that’s what really has helped me figure out where my passion is in life.”

Generous donations from alumni and friends have funded past Appalachian Trail service learning experiences. Help ensure students have the opportunity to take this life-changing trip in the future by donating at ucmfoundation.org/give/military. and designating your contribution to Appalachian Trail Service Learning. Thank you for your support!

 

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