Hiking events

Hike away from battle trauma on the Pacific Crest Trail

I joined the army to create a better life for myself. Between a stable career and the GI Bill, which would pay for any education I wanted after I left, it gave me opportunities that I would never have been able to afford otherwise. But I never thought how much being an active duty soldier would change who I was.

In June 2007, I was deployed to Iraq for 13 months as a combat medic. I provided frontline medical care to my platoon as we ferried around Iraq, often encountering IEDs or coming under fire. At first, I was counting the number of missions I had participated in, but after a few months, I stopped counting. Part of me hoped that if I didn’t follow the operations, I wouldn’t remember what I had been through. I was a 22 year old with less than a year as a doctor under my belt and if anything happened to my group of over a dozen soldiers it was up to me to save their lives. It affected me a lot mentally, and I didn’t know how to deal with this trauma during my deployment and after it was over. So instead, I did what I had always done and buried everything deep.

In 2012, I had started my own family, with three beautiful children. For the most part, I felt pretty satisfied with my life, but it was getting harder and harder not to focus on the memories of my deployment. I didn’t want to turn to alcohol or drugs to numb emotional pain, as many veterans unfortunately do. I couldn’t do that to my family. Instead, I turned to a more positive coping mechanism: nature. I started hiking and running, spending more and more time in nature, and found that each outing helped push back the memories. My husband and I started running trail races together, with our kids in strollers or backpacks. Eventually I worked my way up to a 240 mile ultramarathon.

But I always wanted more. I discovered that I loved running ultramarathons – pushing my body to its limits through mountains, forests and deserts – but I wanted to spend a night outside when I wasn’t running. I decided that if I could tackle an ultra I could backpack and took my family with me. It was a lot of trial and error at first, but eventually I decided I was ready for the next step: hiking.

“I had known for a long time that I was in denial about the trauma I had experienced, but what I had done through seemed so much smaller compared to what other Iraqi veterans have endured; I found it difficult to admit that I could also suffer from my own long-term sequelae.

In 2020, when the world came to a standstill, I decided to attempt the Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the Pacific Crest Trail heading south. Most hikers do the PCT from south to north to avoid the worst of the California heat and North Cascades snow, but going against the crowds appealed to me. Also, my parents lived in Washington, so I would have accommodation and a ride to the northern terminus.

I was also drawn in when I discovered that there was only one recorded southbound FKT attempt, by a man named Scott Williamson, which was completed in 64 days, 11 hours and 19 minutes. To beat it, I would need an average of 42 miles a day for about two months. My main strategy, however, was not to focus on overall mileage. Instead, I took it one state at a time, one section at a time, and one day at a time, the same way I ran ultramarathons.

The night before I left, I laid out all my gear, checking everything against my master list. Since I would be starting out in the snow, I had crampons and an ice ax in addition to my food (mostly meals I was dehydrating), a 2 pound tent, and a small pile of clothes stuffed into a waterproof bag. I was as ready as ever.

My first day on the North Cascades trails started with a mix of snow and rain, heavy fog and patches of snow covering the course. These conditions set the tone for the next few weeks; the terrain was harder than expected, the snow slowed me down, and the trail often disappeared in snowdrifts. Without my GPS, I would have been lost. Every day I was pushed mentally and physically beyond what I thought I was capable of, traversing steep snowfields and struggling on icy slopes, and not hitting my mileage goals.

A few weeks later, I took the track name of Isht’ Putaki (pronounced “eesht potakee”) from my Blackfeet culture – “Flies High” in English. It’s a name given to me by chef Earl Old Person when I returned from Iraq in 2008, for my love of soaring above the clouds. I had been in the 82nd Airborne Division and earned my Air Assault Badge, which meant I spent a lot of time jumping from prime planes and rappelling from helicopters.

Trail names are usually given to you by other hikers, but I rarely encountered any as most of them were still near the Mexican border. So I decided to use a name that already meant something to me instead. Saying it out loud and remembering who I was and what I was capable of gave me strength and courage when I needed it most.

The most important part of my hike, however, was what I didn’t expect: being alone with my thoughts on the trail brought out what I had worked so hard to bury for the past decade. I had known for a long time that I was in denial about the trauma I had experienced, but what I had done through seemed so much smaller compared to what other Iraqi veterans have endured; I found it difficult to admit that I could also suffer from my own long-term sequelae. At PCT, finally unable to lean on distractions or look away from my feelings, I learned to stop comparing myself to everyone else and accept that I suffered from post-traumatic stress, and had done so for ages. years.

I felt like a weight had been lifted. I was no longer afraid to admit I had a problem, and that was the most important step in asking for help.

In the end, I didn’t set an FKT, but bigger goals had taken over. During my seven weeks in the desert, I had found healing and begun to move past the trauma I had tried to ignore for years. Life is precious, and hiking gave me a key realization: I no longer wanted to spend my time focusing on past events or letting them dominate my emotions.

On the PCT, I finally became free.