The following is a guest blog post by veteran and Veterans History Project participant Earl Porter III. Porter’s VHP interview can be found on our website.
On September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I crested Mt. Katahdin in Maine, the start point for southbound Appalachian Trail (AT) “thru-hikers.” The AT is a 2,190+ mile, fourteen state long public footpath stretching from Maine to Georgia that traverses the scenic, wooded, wild, and culturally resonant lands of the Appalachian Mountains. I spent the next four and a half months walking toward my purpose: helping people transmute hardship through nature, community, and leadership. It felt natural.
Admittedly, I walked the AT partially for my own benefit, but the flagship reason was to raise awareness and resources for veteran mental health. In simplest terms, I walked to demonstrate the power of asking for help. The project was designed to reconnect veterans to their local community during the lonely winter following our U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The AT was not my first journey into the unknown. My first journey involved leaving home at 14, persevering the judicial system, and graduating high school. I was nurtured by the presence of my community—my sister and mentors who helped me develop a work ethic to earn both the Boy Scout rank of Eagle Scout and a four-year ROTC Scholarship.
Unfortunately, a few weeks after graduating high school I lost my father who I grew to love since leaving home. Peaks and valleys.
Walking through the valley of losing my father could have easily led to destructive ends were it not due to the service-minded community I joined as a University of North Georgia cadet. The humility, grit, and determination drawn from my childhood trauma fueled me to become the first of that military college to ever graduate as the number one cadet in the nation.
I then commissioned as an Army infantry officer, graduated Ranger School, and joined the 3rd Infantry Division to lead platoons in both Mosul, Iraq and Kandahar, Afghanistan. After my deployments I taught four platoon’s worth of new infantry officers how to be platoon leaders and served as the interim chief of operations responsible for designing the integration of females into the infantry officer schoolhouse. I applied but was not accepted to the Army’s JAG program due to having relatively low test scores.
Fast-forwarding to 2016, I transitioned from seven years active Army to a civilian life pursuing a legal career. By 2021, the peaks and valleys that I had persevered included law school, bar exams, big law, COVID pandemic isolation, and divorce. My foundation became unstable. Up until then I lived with two very clear purposes: 1) prior to 2016, to bring home every American Soldier assigned to my responsibility, and 2) from 2016, to become a present husband and father. Suddenly, I was adrift as a civilian with no soldiers and a divorcee with no children.
I spent some time thinking of the valley’s that contoured my early adulthood, all involving close exposure to death by suicide and reflecting on how Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) does not require combat, but rather is the gap between our deepest expectations and perceived reality.
After doing some soul-searching, I realized that throughout my life, I had overcome periods of complex grief by serving others and maintaining presence of mind. Slowly, I regained my bearing through healthy methods like therapy, meditation, and journaling. As a veteran who had experienced the suicides of close friends, and persevered through hardship, I set a course to become a force for positive change within the veteran community, specifically targeting the area of PTS and mental health.
My first step was to ask my community for help, and I developed a formidable AT team of supporters who encouraged me to prioritize my mental preparation. We knew that I would often spend extended periods of time wet, cold, and walking isolated. I listened and prioritized mental and spiritual preparation, banking that my military experiences taught me everything needed to physically complete a winter thru-hike.
My AT team and I walked on the shoulders of community legends like Earl Shaffer—a World War II Veteran and the first AT thru-hiker who walked in part to reconcile losing his friend in the Battle of Iwo Jima. We invited people to walk with us to beat the drum for the often-unheard-of White Star families (those suffering the death of their veteran to suicide). We even saved a veteran’s life, something we learned six weeks after finishing. Someone received our message along the AT and felt compelled to call the National Suicide Hotline, check into a veteran’s hospital, and lived to tell their story. The experience remains surreal over a year after completion. Closing my eyes in meditation nourishes me with memories connected to nature, camaraderie, and persevering daily obstacles.
My journey now has me on path to foster an expanding community of civilians and veterans alike through wellness, agriculture, and leadership development to help people transmute hardship. Life’s journey is full of peaks and valleys.
See you on the high ground.
If you or someone you know is experiencing distress, immediate help is available. Anyone can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (988lifeline.org) by calling or texting 988, anytime 24/7, for free and confidential emotional support.