Warrior Expeditions offer journeys of a lifetime

Great American Trail-Rail Veterans Joseph De La Garza, Allison Garrigus, Alan Garrigus, Jay Waters and Paul Cook recently stopped in Dayton as part of their 3,700-mile journey - Debbie Juniewicz
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Great American Trail-Rail Veterans Joseph De La Garza, Allison Garrigus, Alan Garrigus, Jay Waters and Paul Cook recently stopped in Dayton as part of their 3,700-mile journey - Debbie Juniewicz

Lush forests, scenic waterways and dynamic cityscapes; it’s just what the doctor ordered for adventurous veterans who participate in Warrior Expeditions.

“First and foremost, this is about improving my mental health,” said Paul Cook, a retired United States Navy search and rescue swimmer. “It’s also been a great opportunity to connect with people in the Midwest and across the country.”

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Warrior Expeditions is a nonprofit outdoor therapy program that helps veterans transition from their wartime experiences through long-distance outdoor journeys. Pedal, paddle or foot power, there are a variety of expeditions offered throughout the year as part of the Warrior Bike, Warrior Paddle and Warrior Hike programs.

Cook, who was deployed in Iraq and Somalia during his naval service, is part of a five-person group of Great American Rail-Trail Veterans that recently passed through Dayton. The cyclists set out from Washington D.C. in May and will pedal 3,700 miles along the Great American Rail-Trail, finishing their journey in Washington state in July.

“It’s been huge for me being in nature and experiencing the camaraderie we have out here,” Cook, 34, said.

The Great American Rail-Trail Veterans are in the midst of a 3,700-mile journey from Washington D.C. to Washington state. CONTRIBUTED
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The Great American Rail-Trail Veterans are in the midst of a 3,700-mile journey from Washington D.C. to Washington state. CONTRIBUTED

Camaraderie is one of the three Cs of Warrior Expeditions – camaraderie, contemplation and community. The journeys offer valuable time with fellow veterans as well as time to decompress from their military service. The expeditions also create opportunities to interact with community supporters and build valuable networks.

Since 2001, more than 3 million American veterans have returned home from war but many of them did not have the opportunity to transition from their experiences, something that contributes to post-traumatic stress disorder. Warrior Expeditions was created to provide opportunities for veterans to transition from their wartime experiences through therapeutic outdoor experiences.

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“I saw some horrific things in my 30 years in the Army,” said Jay Waters, a retired colonel who was deployed in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. “But in the Army, you always knew what you were going to do. A trip like this gives you structure again.”

Waters enjoys having the opportunity to interact with people along the way, especially fellow veterans. The 56-year-old makes it a point to stop at American Legion and VFW posts along the route to connect and share stories.

“For me, I like being out in small town America and big town America,” Waters said. “It’s an amazing experience.”

For more information about Warrior Expeditions, visit https://warriorexpeditions.org/.

Contact this contributing writer at djuniewicz@gmail.com.

Great American Rail-Trail Veterans

Paul Cook

Branch: Navy (2005-14)

Hometown: Boulder, Colorado

Deployments: Iraq, Somalia

Joseph De La Garza

Branch: Navy (1993-2005)

Hometown: Laguna Vista, Texas

Deployments: Iraq

Alan Garrigus

Branch: Navy (1984-2014)

Hometown: Greenville, S.C.

Deployments: Saudi Arabia, Iraq

Allison Garrigus

Branch: Navy (1988-2009)

Hometown: Greenville, S.C.

Deployments: Iraq

Jay Waters

Branch: Army (1987-2017)

Hometown: Alexandria, Virginia

Deployments: Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan