ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — Mario Kovach stood at a trailhead near Hawk Mountain the other day, with the Appalachian Trail stretching to Maine one way and Georgia the other and a perfect blue sky spilling sunshine over everything — a red car parked on the side of the road, a gaggle of genial thru-hikers pausing among their heaps of gear to rest and drink water.
He slowly rotated his right forearm, displaying 20 surnames of men and women tattooed in a font patterned, he said, after the one on the tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery.
All died in service of their country. Solesbee, Bell, Schwartz, Seidler, Weiner, Miller, Loncki, Moss. On and on. As members of the U.S. Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit, they were steel-nerved experts in the highwire job of defusing bombs, including the improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that killed so many troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This was Kovach’s job, too, during his 20 years in the Air Force. The Pottstown native, who retired in 2018, survived five rotations through Afghanistan without serious injury, except to his psyche. It is this wound the retired master sergeant has been treating on the trail and other places where nature is still able to soften the sharp edges of the manmade world and hush its incessant screech and roar.
“It’s natural stimulus versus manmade stimulus,” he said. “Nature is nothing that man controls. It’s the combination of the environment and solitude that gives me the feeling of resetting my internal locus.”
This is where Cindy Ross enters the story. She is a writer and lifelong hiker whose adventures in travel and education have filled nine books so far.
The latest, “Walking Towards Peace — Veterans Healing on America’s Trails,” is about the veterans Ross serves through the nonprofit River House PA, headquartered at the log cabin she and husband Todd Gladfelter built 30 years ago in East Brunswick Township, Schuylkill County.
The organization was born out of Ross’ experience with some veterans who thru-hiked the trail in 2013, meaning they walked all 2,180 miles. When the group paused in Albany Township, she and Gladfelter organized a dinner for them at the cabin, listening to the stories they told of war’s horrors and the unexpected happiness they found in the arduous but beautiful trek along the trail.
“It’s a place they can find peace,” said Ross, who speaks intently and earnestly, in the manner of someone sharing information you absolutely have to know.
It is, after all, an urgent matter. Post-traumatic stress disorder — PTSD — is endemic among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, with one study suggesting the rate is as high as 30%. Many Vietnam veterans still carry the burden, too.
Veterans also take their own lives in extraordinary numbers. Military suicide has rightly been called an epidemic — the Department of Veterans Affairs says nearly 18 veterans a day committed suicide in 2018. And though rates have declined among veterans who have received care through the department, much work remains to be done.
Kovach is among the veterans profiled in Ross’ book. They are men and women who have seen the worst of the worst and, in many cases, came close to suicide before discovering nature’s restorative power — manifested in the flute-like call of a wood thrush, the rattle of a woodpecker, the glimpse of a sun-mottled deer among the trees.
Ross worked with veterans affairs early on and word spread about the program, so she has no shortage of veterans visiting River House and hitting the woods. The water, too — they do a lot of tubing and paddling. Paralyzed veterans can ride adaptive mountain bikes on the trails.
At the end of these days, they gather back at Ross and Gladfelter’s house and, like that first night, have dinner and gather around a fire.
“At least a few of them would start to cry and say, ‘It was the best day of my life,’” Ross said. “They say, ‘I need to do this with my family and kids.’”
Most gratifying are the messages from veterans who tell her a day in nature was crucial to saving their lives.
Kovach, who grew up in the shadow of the Limerick nuclear power plant’s cooling towers and now lives in upstate New York with his wife and two sons, was circumspect about what led him into explosives disposal.
“I didn’t get into it on purpose,” he said, then veered into a discussion of the history of the Ordnance Disposal unit — how it evolved from the need to clear English city streets of the time-delayed bombs dropped by Nazis in Luftwaffe raids.
All four military branches have EOD units. Kovach said the Air Force unit numbers in the hundreds but is a close-knit group nonetheless.
“Most I knew or worked with in some capacity,” Kovach said of the fallen colleagues whose names cover his arm.
He recounted the ways some of them perished. Airmen Timothy Weiner, Daniel Miller and Elizabeth Loncki — Team Lima — died in Iraq in 2007 when a device they were investigating detonated. Technical Sgt. Kristoffer M. Solesbee was killed by a bomb in Afghanistan.
Airmen Matthew Seidler, Bryan Bell and Matthew Schwartz “were hit by a giant IED” in Afghanistan in 2012, Kovach said. “And Walt Moss was the first EOD killed in Iraq.” That was in 2006.
Carrying such memories, not to mention the accumulated stress of moving through war zones where every moment posed a threat, turned Kovach into a different man, a change he sums up in Ross’ book:
“Guys like me thrive in crisis situations. But the longer you are in combat, the more your nature begins to change. Our wires get crossed. You might be in a mall at home on leave, but hypervigilance mode is going through the roof. I feel as if I have to pay close attention to details and I can’t turn it off in a normal situation. We don’t have a switch. For so long and for so often, I needed to keep the team alive. Urgency becomes the norm. This lifestyle has completely eroded my nerves.”
In 2019, Kovach hiked the 85-mile Susquehannock Trail in Potter and Clinton counties. That’s where he learned that nature can restore what life has taken.
“Not a single part of me on that hike felt as if I were on a mission,” he told Ross. “I was not teleported back to the mountains of Afghanistan.”
Kovach is keenly aware that for every vet who finds healing and solace, many more still struggle to the point of despair. Last fall he co-founded “Project Felix,” a nonprofit group for unit technicians coping with survivor’s guilt and other trauma.
“We’re trying to put a dent in the ether of military suicides,” he said.
There are means of healing other than hiking and paddling, of course, but Kovach said a day in the woods — or a week, or a month — must be reckoned among the best.
“It doesn’t cost anything,” he said. “You’re not putting medications into you. And you can do it anytime.”