Ma­rine vet suits up for a 7,000-mile hike

Cross-coun­try trek meant to raise aware­ness of PTSD, sui­cide pre­ven­tion

The Day - - FRONT PAGE - By MARY BIEKERT Day Staff Writer

East Lyme — It will take Ma­rine Corps vet­eran Steven Lesage of Plain­field about 18 months to hike The Amer­i­can Dis­cov­ery Trail. Or­ga­nized as a sys­tem of recre­ational trails and roads that col­lec­tively form a coast-to-coast hik­ing route, the Amer­i­can Dis­cov­ery Trail ex­tends 6,800 miles, through 15 dif­fer­ent states, from Cal­i­for­nia to Delaware.

While on it, Lesage will pass through The Sierra Ne­vada, the Rocky Moun­tains and the Grand Canyon, and he’ll go through the deserts of Utah and Ne­vada. He’ll trek through the Ozarks and Ap­palachia, hit­ting a peak el­e­va­tion point at Colorado’s Ar­gen­tine Pass of 13,207 feet.

With a start date set for the be­gin­ning of March, the 34-year-old ex­pects to hike and tra­verse moun­tains cov­ered in sev­eral feet of snow — a risky un­der­tak­ing he said isn’t much cause for con­cern. In­stead, his cross-coun­try hike is more than time on the trail or find­ing in­ter­nal peace. It’s a chance to spread the word of veter­ans’ or­ga­ni­za­tions across the coun­try while also rais­ing aware­ness about men­tal health, vet­eran sui­cide pre­ven­tion and post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der — causes Lesage said are im­mensely im­por­tant to him after he served in the Marines Corps for a decade.

On Sun­day, Lesage talked about those is­sues while sur­rounded by dozens of his clos­est fam­ily and friends, as well as veter­ans from across the re­gion, at a fundrais­ing event at East Lyme’s No­ble Jay Brew­ing Co. to as­sist Lesage on his hike.

“This hike, for me, is about help­ing spread the word about these is­sues and veter­ans’ or­ga­ni­za­tions. But I also want to en­cour­age peo­ple to find some­thing happy for them­selves the way hik­ing has made me feel happy. This is about try­ing to help oth­ers find their way,” he said.

In or­der to do that, Lesage said he will doc­u­ment his hike through videos and so­cial me­dia posts on his Face­book and In­sta­gram pages @ Ram­boHikes, spread­ing the word about the lo­cal veter­ans’ or­ga­ni­za­tions in the states he passes through. Be­yond talk­ing about his daily or­deals while on the trail, he will also talk about the is­sues veter­ans face in their day-to-day lives, ex­pe­ri­ences he is all too fa­mil­iar with.

Join­ing the Ma­rine Corps in 2002 just weeks after grad­u­at­ing from Plain­field High School, Lesage has been de­ployed on three six-month tours to Iraq as part of Op­er­a­tion Iraqi Free­dom. While on those tours, Lesage, who was a cor­po­ral, worked as an elec­tri­cian, wiring com­pounds and en­camp­ments that he and other Amer­i­can troops resided and worked in. Dur­ing his last tour, he as­sisted com­bat en­gi­neers with route clear­ance, or, in other words, find­ing and re­mov­ing road­side bombs to al­low for safe trans­porta­tion.

And even though he said he was not on the front­lines while in Iraq, his life, he said, was al­ways in dan­ger as his com­pounds were con­stantly bom­barded by en­emy fire. About the other trau­mas of his time in Iraq, Lesage left much un­said.

Once back in the United States, Lesage said ad­just­ment to nor­mal civil­ian life was an­other chal­lenge in it­self. Find­ing pur­pose and ful­fill­ment again felt im­pos­si­ble.

“You go from be­ing trained to kill to mak­ing dough­nuts,” he said. “Go­ing from mil­i­tary life to civil­ian life is dif­fi­cult. The ca­ma­raderie isn’t there any­more. You don’t have a pur­pose.”

Spi­ral­ing into al­co­holism, Lesage said he suf­fered from PTSD, so­cial anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion after leav­ing the Marines. At one point, he was charged with driv­ing un­der the in­flu­ence — a wake-up call, he said, that in­spired him to get his life back in or­der. His an­swer to that? Hik­ing.

At first, Lesage said he would take day hikes in lo­cal state parks. Then, he de­cided to hike the en­tire Ap­palachian Trail in 2016. At that point, Lesage said the most he had ever hiked straight was five or six miles in a sin­gle day. He had also never taken an overnight trip.

But the Ap­palachian Trail left him re­newed. He said he has since been calmer and at peace again. He now has a pur­pose. And most im­por­tantly, he has been able to talk to peo­ple, open­ing up hon­estly about his ex­pe­ri­ences.

Lesage is not the only vet­eran to turn to na­ture to seek com­fort and un­der­stand­ing. The num­bers of veter­ans em­bark­ing on cross-coun­try treks have grown in re­cent years, ac­cord­ing to a New York Times ar­ti­cle writ­ten about the sub­ject in 2017. For Deb­o­rah Mc­Grath, Con­necti­cut chap­ter di­rec­tor of Honor and Re­mem­ber, a na­tional vet­eran sup­port agency, the num­ber of veter­ans turn­ing to na­ture to help cope with trau­mas en­dured over­seas is in­creas­ing.

“This is what they are do­ing to help them­selves,” she said while at Sun­day’s fundraiser. “And when we met Steve, we re­al­ized even more just how im­por­tant it can be to get veter­ans out and about.”

In an ef­fort to help Lesage with his hike, Mc­Grath said her or­ga­ni­za­tion has do­nated thou­sands of dol­lars to him. Some of that money was in­vested in a high-tech GPS tracker that will track, over the in­ter­net, where Lesage is in real time. Fam­ily and friends and those in­ter­ested in the hike can know at any time where he is and if he is OK.

“We just want veter­ans to know about the dif­fer­ent sup­port sys­tems that are avail­able to them, and Steve is go­ing to help make that hap­pen through this hike,” Mc­Grath said.

There are still many chal­lenges ahead of Lesage, how­ever. One of them is the time of year he is start­ing his hike. Go­ing against the ad­vice of the Amer­i­can Dis­cov­ery Trail So­ci­ety, ac­cord­ing to Lesage, he will be hik­ing in March and April, months where many of the moun­tain passes he in­tends to tra­verse will still be cov­ered in feet of snow.

Lesage will also be hik­ing to un­prece­dented el­e­va­tion lev­els. The high­est el­e­va­tion he has reached thus far in his life was 6,288 feet while hik­ing Mount Wash­ing­ton as a child. The hike over the ADT will of­ten take him twice that high. Map­ping his way from Cal­i­for­nia to Delaware will also be an­other dif­fi­culty, he said, as most of the guides and maps made for that ADT only go from east to west. Mak­ing the trek eas­ier, Lesage has or­ga­nized mail drops at sev­eral points across the ADT to stock up on sup­plies. He will also be hik­ing with a light­weight pack that, when filled with food and wa­ter, will weigh just 35 pounds.

If all goes well, how­ever, and if he man­ages to hike, on av­er­age, 15 to 20 miles per day, Lesage ex­pects to fin­ish the hike within 18 months.

And if he does that, Lesage says he’ll be the first per­son in recorded his­tory to have hiked west to east on the ADT. Oth­ers, ac­cord­ing to the Amer­i­can Dis­cov­ery Trail So­ci­ety, have com­pleted the trail in its en­tirety, but only while hik­ing from Delaware to Cal­i­for­nia.

But more than that, Lesage said what amazes him most will be the thou­sands of veter­ans he hopes to touch by do­ing this hike.

“This isn’t about me. I don’t want fame and for­tune. I want peo­ple to know that they can get help and where they can get help. I want peo­ple to also find the pas­sion in their lives that sets them into mo­tion. For me, that is hik­ing, and I’m us­ing that pas­sion to help oth­ers now.”

SARAH GOR­DON/THE DAY

Ma­rine vet­eran Steven Lesage talks with friends on Sun­day dur­ing a fundraiser at No­ble Jay Brew­ing in Niantic. Lesage will soon be em­bark­ing on an 18-month cross coun­try hike to raise aware­ness about vet­eran sui­cide pre­ven­tion and PTSD.

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