Combat veteran, Fayetteville resident, paddles entire Mississippi River

Courtesy photo
Balthazar flashes peace signs to a photographer while floating through Memphis during her trip down the Big Muddy.
TOM HINDMAN| Gazette-Mail
Annie Balthazar, of Fayetteville, recently completed an approximately 2,200-mile source-to-sea expedition of the Mississippi River in a canoe. A combat veteran, she made the trek for Warrior Hike, an organization that helps veterans recover from their war experiences by hiking scenic trails and, now, by paddling rivers.
Courtesy photo
Balthazar stands next to the river with her canoe, a 13-foot Old Town Canoe Next, which she said handled very nicely during her journey down the entire length of the Mississippi.

A combat veteran herself, Annie Balthazar is passionate about helping military men and women returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. So when she got the opportunity to use another of her passions to find a way for them to deal with their post-traumatic stress disorder, she jumped — or rather, paddled — at the chance.

The 53-year-old Fayetteville resident recently paddled the entire Mississippi River. She traveled the river for the organization Warrior Hike, to help determine if returning veterans with missing limbs could complete it as a way of moving from their military service back into civilian society.

“It was the most challenging but rewarding thing,” she said.

Balthazar served in the Air Force from 1996 to 2007, and did a six-month tour in Iraq as a nurse anesthetist in 2005.

She remembers working in a tent ward full of children who had been wounded when schools and libraries were hit with bombs.

“It was devastating,” Balthazar said. “I’ve worked in shock trauma centers and nothing could have prepared me for my experience there.”

Her transition from war to society was very quick, she said. Historically, servicemen and women coming back from war traveled long distances, during which they processed what they had been through, she said. Modern transportation has changed that.

In her case, she was working as a nurse anesthetist early on the day she left Iraq. She then boarded a plane that later stopped at a morgue, picking up a number of flag-draped caskets on the way back to the United States, she said.

“And, to this day, any event that has a lot of flags — Memorial Day, the Fourth of July — it just sets me right back,” she said.

Balthazar’s job on the Mississippi expedition was to see it through the eyes of amputee veterans. Warrior Hike — with Balthazar’s help — is testing the possibility of having them paddle the river instead of hiking. The veterans who paddle the river would be paired with someone else.

“Absolutely, they can do it,” she said.

Warrior Hike founder Sean Gobin started the organization after returning home from three combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2012. Gobin, who had hiked the entire 2,185 miles of the Appalachian Trail, recognized the therapeutic effects of long-distance hiking and founded the “Walk Off the War” program.

So far, 71 veterans have taken journeys on six trails with Warrior Hike, he said.

Many times when service members come home from war, they get right back into finding a job and don’t have a lot of time to decompress and process what they’ve been through, Gobin said. Being in the outdoors on a long trip gives people a chance to do that, he said.

Outdoors trips and expeditions are particularly useful, he said, because outdoors areas are free and accessible to everyone.

“It’s been interesting to find out how effective the outdoors are with that,” he said.

Many of the veterans have become avid outdoorspeople after going though the program, he said.

Sponsors help the agency supply each veteran with supplies for the trip. The organization coordinates with communities along the trails, to support the veterans as they travel through.

Warrior Hike also plans to start offering cross-country bicycling trips next year, Gobin said.

Despite Warrior Hike’s successes, he knows there’s not a cure for PTSD.

“It really does change how the brain works,” Gobin said. “The solution is learning how to cope with that.”

Balthazar’s Mississippi River journey started July 20 and took her 103 days, until Halloween. She slept on riverbanks each night and was mostly by herself. While three other paddlers were making the journey, two of them are still on the river because they’ve made frequent stops at VFWs and elsewhere to promote Warrior Hike, she said. They’ll be on the river much of November. Balthazar was with a fourth paddler only sporadically.

While people tend to think of the Mississippi as calm — something boaters float down — Balthazar said that’s a misconception.

“Lake Winnie, in Minnesota, is 10 miles across and you get in the middle of that and you can’t see the other side,” she said. “There are 10-feet swells, and you feel like you’re in the ocean. It was touch and go there for a while, and I’m an avid paddler.”

While she packed her own supplies and food, she also benefited from “river angels” — people along the river who leave food and supplies for through paddlers. River angels often take paddlers into their homes for warm meals and showers, or drive them to stores so they can restock their supplies, she said.

“It just really restored my faith in humanity,” Balthazar said.

The journey wasn’t without danger from wildlife, either. She recalled a close encounter with an alligator while in the Atchafalaya River, which has the largest swamp area in the United States.

“I actually stepped out to use the bathroom under a bridge and heard this hiss,” she said. “And I look over and there’s this gator, and I’m thinking, what is he doing under an interstate, of all places?

“I quickly got back in my boat and held it,” Balthazar said with a laugh.

During her trip, she didn’t keep up with news events, although she did talk with family members. Her daughter’s third child was born just days after she started the trip.

“We knew her due date, but my daughter, who is a clinical psychologist specializing in veteran problems — I probably had something to do with that — said ‘Mom, if you don’t go on this trip I’ll never forgive you,’ ” Balthazar said. Her daughter, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, had plenty of support from her husband’s family, she said.

It’s been more than a week since Balthazar got off the river, and she misses it. While you’re paddling a river, no one cares what you look like, she pointed out. People will bring you in, even though you may be dirty and unkempt.

“The world is fine when you’re on the river, that’s all I’ve got to say,” she said.

Balthazar doesn’t plan to do another expedition with Warrior Hike. She resigned her job with the Veterans Health Administration to do the Mississippi trip, and said it would be hard for her to take another few months for another trip.

However, she would like to start a local organization with similar goals. Paddlers for Peace, a name that refers to both inner peace and supporting world peace, would allow combat veterans to take shorter journeys on West Virginia rivers. She’s seeking sponsors for equipment now and hopes to have her first expeditions by spring 2016.

Balthazar said being in nature and away from everything can help veterans cope with PTSD. Removing yourself from the bombardment of consumerism and other aspects of modern life can allow a person to heal, she said.

“I just think being in nature and being outdoors, isolated a little from the chaos of life, really helps,” she said.

For more information on Warrior Hike, visit warriorhike.org. To contact Balthazar, email her at rivergal1720@gmail.com.

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1240 or follow @LoriKerseyWV on Twitter.

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