Their young faces are more weathered now, and they've grown mustaches and beards and calluses on their feet. The smiles under the facial hair are just as big in photos on their Facebook pages as the day before they left home.
On June 4 they boarded an airplane for Maine, where they began a life adventure — hiking the Appalachian Trail from Katahdin, Maine, to Springer Mountain, Ga. It will take them six months.
The three young men, Jacob Mills, Mark Hafemann and Graham Martin, are trekking 2,100 miles to raise awareness and money for the Wounded Warrior Project. Since Sept. 11, 2001, roughly 42,000 service members serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered life-altering injuries on the battlefield. The prime objective of the Wounded Warrior Project is to help those brave soldiers and their families to transition back to civilian life, and to manage the new difficulties they face as disabled veterans.
“The Warrior March is a small, but important, testament to the sacrifice these men and women have sustained, and to a great organization created to support them. Through our efforts, we hope to remind the people in our communities of that sacrifice,” Jacob Mills told me just before they started the trip.
Jacob is the son of my friend Billy Mills, who is a medical examiner investigator for Denton County. Jacob served four years as a U.S. Marine, doing a tour of duty in Iraq and being promoted to sergeant before coming home and starting college. His good friend, Scout Sniper Sgt. Matthew Abbate, was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2010, and Jacob is dedicating his hike to him and the 50 other brothers and sisters in arms who were killed and 150 who were injured during his tour.
When his friends, Mark and Graham, told him about the trip, Jacob knew he was going, too.
Mark served a year in Iraq in the Army before coming home to continue his education. Graham’s brother is in the military, and he’s walking in his honor.
In the last month they’ve crossed 43 mountains — yes 43! — waded or jumped or floated across endless rivers and traveled 371 miles on foot. Only 1,789 miles to go.
Along the way, they picked up Landon Gow from Colorado and Zack Day from Indiana, who’ve decided to make the trek with them. Both men are veterans. Zack is hiking for a charity called Hike for Hoosier Vets. He’s working with the Hoosier Veterans Administration to raise money to help homeless veterans.
And they met Bill Eason, 18, “the kid,” whom they’re allowing to tag along, Jacob said.
Graham, who wasn’t in quite the same shape as the military vets, has been having trouble with his knees and feet. He’s walking slower, but he’s making it to camp before bedtime.
They’ve met a lot of nice people along the way who are supportive of their cause.
“They love our vets over here in the northeast,” Jacob said. “We’ve met a lot of them out on the trail. Some are walking for Wounded Warriors and some are just walking. It’s very therapeutic.”
They carry fairly light packs and they pack food for 10 days at a time. But they eat it all in four or five days, he said. All that effort gives a man a healthy appetite.
They made it across Maine with its roots and rocks and bogs — the roughest terrain in the trip — in 32 days and now they’re hiking New Hampshire. The views are breathtaking, Jacob said. They’ve crossed the strenuous Presidential Mountain Range and by today they planned to be heading for Vermont.
“They say it’s the most fun you ever had interrupted by long walks in the woods,” he said.
They treat all their water to keep it safe to drink and they heat up their food with little camp stoves. They all packed their sleeping bags and one-man tents on their backs. Occasionally they stop in a town for a real meal and even a place to sleep indoors. And everywhere they go they tell people about the injured soldiers and their families who will benefit from their trip and the generosity of people who want to help.
If you would like to help, go to the Wounded Warriors website or the Facebook pages of Jacob, Mark or Graham. You’ll find information there for donations.
I tacked a photo of my three young warriors to the wall beside my desk at home. Each time I sit down, I look at the picture and wonder where they are, what they are doing. I pray they are safe. They make me proud of knowing such fine young men. I’ll let you know next time Jacob calls.
DONNA FIELDER can be reached at 940-566-6885. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.