Air Force Veteran Emerald Ralston stepped off the southern point of the Appalachian Trail at Springer Mountain, Georgia, March 19. Since then, she has been hiking, connecting with nature and recovering from a difficult transition out of the military. She’s on a mission to complete the 2,185-mile long trail through the help of Warrior Expeditions.

About Warrior Expeditions

Warrior Expeditions is a Veteran nonprofit outdoor therapy program. They help Veterans transition from their wartime experiences through long distance outdoor expeditions, said Executive Director Sean Gobin. It outfits Veterans with some of the most highly rated equipment, clothing and supplies available from the outdoor retail industry. The gear and skills training then helps Veterans successfully complete the expedition.

The group also shadows Veterans during the first leg of their journey to answer questions and troubleshoot issues. Warrior Expeditions coordinates support in the forms of transportation, lodging and food from community supporters located along the trail.

It offers hikes, bikes and paddles throughout the U.S. Ralston is one of the Veterans taking advantage of the program.

Road to the trail

Born in Texas and raised in Iowa, Ralston joined the Air Force just after her 18th birthday. She graduated from the Defense Information School as a public affairs specialist in 2005, then went to Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana. After four years, she went to Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington. In 2010, she deployed to Afghanistan.

While deployed, Ralston suffered a traumatic event. She applied for a hardship discharge and was a civilian several weeks later.

She said her transition from the military was basically non-existent. Despite the abrupt change, she moved on with her life. She used her GI Bill to earn a psychology degree from Harvard University. Following graduation, she came back to the Air Force as a civilian public affairs specialist and speechwriter.

Ralston took a new job, then realized she needed a change in her life. She said she also needed to deal with post-traumatic stress stemming from her military service. Ralston applied to graduate school and Warrior Expeditions, getting slots in both programs. She then started a routine to work up to the trail.

Air Force Veteran Emerald Ralston overlooks the Shenandoah Valley during a stop at Mary's Rock Summit in Shenandoah National Park.

Air Force Veteran Emerald Ralston overlooks the Shenandoah Valley during a stop at Mary’s Rock Summit in Shenandoah National Park.

On the trail

Ralston, whose trail name is “Penguin,” said walking the trail has brought a mixed set of emotions. She said the first day setting off in Georgia was incredible, but she’s appreciative of every day.

“My best moment out here, I would say, every day is the best day ever,” she said.

She also likened the challenges – including rainstorms, violent wind, physical demands and mental demands – to her military service, saying that the experience gives her time to think about her own service, reconciling some of her feelings.

“When you’re out here walking, and often you’re alone, or at least for big portions of the day, you get in your head and a lot starts to come up,” she said. “The mental stuff has been difficult, but really productive.”

As of early June, Ralston was in Pennsylvania, about halfway through her journey. She’s on pace to finish in mid-August, but will have little time to rest. She starts her doctorate program in psychology Aug. 30 at Antioch University New England in Keene, New Hampshire. You can follow here journey at

Advice for others

She said her advice for other Veterans considering an expedition would be to figure out why they want to do it, then put in the training. She said Veterans should get used to their gear and, much like the military, train as you would fight.

“I would absolutely recommend getting used to the rain,” she said, as raindrops fell on her. “Train physically and train mentally. Just get out there and hike, get out there and just move your body and exercise your mind, and kind of figure out why you want to do it.”

Air Force Veteran Emerald Ralston takes a break at Thornton Gap in Shenandoah National Park May 27.

Air Force Veteran Emerald Ralston takes a break at Thornton Gap in Shenandoah National Park May 27.

Want to start an adventure?

Warrior Expeditions assists Veterans in the following adventures.

Warrior Hike

Appalachian Trail, which is 2,185 miles long and crosses 14 states from Georgia to Maine.

Continental Divide Trail, which is 3,100 miles long and crosses 5 states from New Mexico to Montana.

Pacific Crest Trail, which is 2,650 miles long and crosses 3 states from California to Washington.

Arizona Trail, which is 800 miles long and crosses the state of Arizona.

Buckeye Trail, which is 1,400 miles long and circles the state of Ohio.

Florida Trail, which is 1,200 miles long and crosses the state of Florida.

Ice Age Trail, which is 1,200 miles long and crosses the state of Wisconsin.

Mountains to Sea Trail, which is 1,200 miles long and crosses the state of North Carolina.

Warrior Bike

Great America Rail Trail, which is 3,700 miles long and crosses 12 states from Virginia to Washington.

Warrior Paddle

Mississippi River, which is 2,320 miles long and crosses 10 states from Minnesota to Louisiana.

Click here to learn more about the Coast Guard Auxiliary

Need to get in shape?

Are you a Veteran who needs to get in shape for an adventure? Try these tools to learn about programs to help.

Connect with one of the hundreds of recreational therapists located at VA medical centers across the country. The service supports each Veteran’s self-directed, self-determined, and fully independent participation in their chosen life pursuits.

Whole Health is VA’s cutting-edge approach to care that supports your health and well-being. Whole Health centers around what matters to you, not what is the matter with you. This means your health team will get to know you as a person before working with you to develop a personalized health plan based on your values, needs and goals.

The MOVE! Coach app is a 19-week weight loss program for Veterans, service members, their families and others who want to lose weight. The app helps participants track and receive feedback on their progress with weight, diet and exercise goals.

#LiveWholeHealth Self-Care blog post series provides self-care practices you can enjoy on demand.

Start your training by connecting with the National Park Service. Connect with national parks from anywhere through virtual experiences or visit a nearby park. Remember to plan your trip and check for changes in operations before departing. Please also see the latest safety guidance for visiting parks and recreating responsibly.

By Air Force Veteran Adam Stump is a member of VA's Digital Media Engagement team.

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Published on Jun. 8, 2021

Estimated reading time is 5.5 min.

Views to date: 1,134


  1. Randy A McDaniel June 12, 2021 at 9:25 pm

    I am interested in supporting programs like this in the San Antonio-Austin area. 21 yr Texas Army National Guard Vet with two OIF tours. I am also Recreation Therapist.

  2. Aiyan Turley June 11, 2021 at 4:11 pm

    This is truly beyond amazing for veterans! Just deflated that it applies to combat vets and I didn’t see war. Still applause for my fellow vets whom needed this adventure!

    Good job
    Semper Fi

  3. Seth Smith June 11, 2021 at 3:37 pm

    @Adam Stump

    We fo a similar thing with outdoor therapy but it is vehicle based. I would like to talk more about this with you if possible. We are doing a trip from NC to Colorado 7 to 19 July.

  4. Michelle June 11, 2021 at 3:12 pm

    There are no specific age guidelines and Vietnam Vets have been accepted in the past, you can apply here:

  5. Joe bebe June 11, 2021 at 12:48 pm

    Grasshopper… Let your journey begin with the 1st step…get in shape while you await your name to be chosen.
    VN ’67-68

  6. Joseph Agee June 11, 2021 at 11:24 am

    These comments are hilarious.


    Crusades 2.0

  7. Mary White June 10, 2021 at 11:56 pm

    This would also help those of us not just transitioning from wartime experiences. I’ll be checking into this.

  8. Jim June 10, 2021 at 11:02 pm

    For you veterans that are in Texas their is a trail here that is easy to moderate. The Lone Star Trail…It is about 120 miles.
    Runs west to east. The western leg start in Rogers. I have hiked half of it. Rogers to Huntsville. Its quite, easy, and tranquil.
    You can find information on line, check out Lone Star Trail at….
    There and several trail heads along the way. Hike all or part.
    You don’t have to sign up and hope you will be chosen. So find a friend, pack your pack, and head out.

  9. monty marsh June 10, 2021 at 8:47 pm

    I’m a Vietnam Vet, 73 years old and I would like to take part in the hiking adventures. I feel positive it would help me.

  10. Richard Fischer June 10, 2021 at 5:28 pm

    Are you kidding? Bike or hike across America? Most veterans can barely make it across a room let alone bike 10 miles. How about providing some realistic and modest biking and hiking challenges and objectives. For example, a 20 mile bike ride through some local established trails near bigger cities where most vets might live.

    • Michelle June 11, 2021 at 3:22 pm

      There are many programs across the US that provide these types of programs. Team Red, White, and Blue, for example, is a wonderful program with chapters in every state. Team River Runners is also a great program for vets and has chapters in nearly every state.

  11. Janet Sinclair June 10, 2021 at 2:28 pm

    Are you aware the VA does NOT recognize walking sticks as devices to stabilize you when walking. I was just in a evaluation for a claim. VA only uses canes or walkers and if you use something else it will effect your claim.
    J Sinclaiir

  12. Capt Nemo June 10, 2021 at 1:14 pm

    Do you people not read the post?! The instructions to apply is in the post…..

  13. Rochelle June 10, 2021 at 11:15 am

    I would love to hike, bike, and learn to paddle. What is the first step in the process?

  14. Lindsey Robbins June 10, 2021 at 9:05 am

    You might want to explain how hard it is to get a slot in this program. There are only 40 slots and hundreds of entries. I personally applied 10 months early and didn’t get a slot. Very depressing to say the least to wait so long only to be told you didn’t make it and to just reapply and wait another year to see if you made the list.

    • Michelle June 11, 2021 at 3:19 pm

      Unfortunately it is not feasible for a program to accept all applicants due to limits on gear, support, and what the trails themselves can accommodate.

  15. Teresa Johnson June 9, 2021 at 11:57 pm

    I’d love to hike The Pacific Coast Trail, the adventure has always been my dream

  16. Edward John Batcho June 9, 2021 at 10:26 pm

    Would like to hike the great trails

  17. Gregory L. Seibert June 9, 2021 at 9:36 pm

    My trail name is Baldeagle. I was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. I completed hiking the AT and summited Katahdin September 9, 2018. As a veteran and hiker, I am more than happy to share my experience and answer questions veterans may have about hiking the trail in general or what equipment worked and what didn’t work. The walk allowed me for the first time to truly relive and flush out memories that I had either forgotten or suppressed. I found a new freedom and joy in life after living six months on this incredible trail.

  18. steven Torry Rappolee June 9, 2021 at 9:11 pm

    I would like to do the warrier bike but with a E Tri bike I can peddle some with assistance

    would need to learn how to buy one with my MediCal plus Medicare and VA ?

    we would need to plan out a charging station routine

  19. Steven B Oakes June 9, 2021 at 8:34 pm

    D you also work with Vets on fishing trips?

    • Michelle June 11, 2021 at 3:15 pm

      No, all of the expeditions are hiking, biking, or paddling long distance. There are many amazing groups that do provide therapy through fishing across the US.

  20. Ronald Shelton June 9, 2021 at 7:02 pm

    Excellent! How can I help/ participate?

  21. Luke Conry June 9, 2021 at 6:57 pm

    I’m a Vietnam Vet, 75 years old who would love to take part in one of these adventures. I suffer from PTSD, depression and anxiety. Is there a process that would fit my demographic?

    • Jim June 10, 2021 at 11:04 pm

      Where are you living. I just posted information on the Texas Lone Star Trail. I to am a VN Vet. Welcome home.

Comments are closed.

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