Nellis civilian to hike trail for disabled vets

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Andrew Dumboski
  • Nellis Air Force Base Public Affairs
A medically-retired Airman has scheduled a 2,200-mile "Trail to Recovery" hike along the Appalachian Trail in honor of our returning wounded soldiers beginning July 16.
Craig Fitzgerald, a civilian budget analyst at the 99th Comptroller Squadron here, is planning the hike in hopes of raising both awareness and funds to assist injured returning veterans.

"The trail is very long, consisting of continuous up-hills and down-hills; we feel it is symbolic of the path our injured troops face as they return home." Fitzgerald said.
Wounded himself while serving overseas as a pararescueman, Fitzgerald knows all to well the struggles wounded soldiers face as they return home.

"It's a tough road for a lot of these men and women returning home and some could really use a helping hand. The (Department of Veteran's Affairs) does everything it can, but with such a large number of individuals seeking assistance it's hard to accommodate everyone in a timely manor, Mr. Fitzgerald said. "We hope the funds raised by the hike will help ease the financial burden these families face until the VA can process their claims."

Mr. Fitzgerald is planning the trip with his friend, Staff Sergeant David Wilcoxen, currently a pararescueman at the 38th Rescue Squadron, Moody AFB, GA. Both plan to hike the full distance.

The hikers expect the trip to take approximately four months to complete, but they won't be going it alone - civilians, retirees, disabled veterans and active-duty personnel from around the country have volunteered to join in for parts of the trail.

"Our goal is that this event will eventually evolve from two individuals hiking a trail, into a large, collective group of individuals working together to make a difference in the lives of some very deserving people." Mr. Fitzgerald said.

"We have whole units that have several members that have told us they will be taking leave for a week or so to help out," Mr. Fitzgerald said.

The hikers' goal is to collect $100,000 for the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes, an organization created to help severely wounded and disabled veterans and their families rebuild their lives. All donations are tax-deductible, Mr. Fitzgerald said.

As of now, the Trail to Recovery has received approximately $3,245 in donations and Mr. Fitzgerald hopes to reach their goal by the time the hike has ended.

The trail will not be easy for hikers, Mr. Fitzgerald said, but that's why they chose it. They wanted the hike to symbolize the struggles disabled veterans face, something he has first-hand knowledge of.

On April 18, 2003, then Tech. Sgt. Fitzgerald was the pararescue team leader of a helicopter that was deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
His team was sent on an aerial reconnaissance mission, but just prior to taking off they were asked to land and scout around the area.

"No hostiles were expected to be in the village, but just to be safe the pilot and I decided that if we saw anyone we wouldn't insert," he said. "We arrived over the area, and started to touch down. I noticed a woman with her child running away from us and I looked ahead in the direction she was running.

"As I noticed that the people she was running toward had weapons we began to hear the sound of bullets hitting the helicopter. We were surrounded."

Three servicemembers on board the aircraft were injured, and Mr. Fitzgerald's arm was badly injured and in need of immediate attention.

"I went through eight surgeries over the next few months, and I had three more after I was medically retired in 2004," he said. "Although I do have disabilities, I don't consider myself disabled. What really struck me was how easy I got off compared to some of the younger troops who had lost arms and legs. I got off with just limited use of my hand."

It was his experience with other disabled vets that made him decide he wanted to help, he said.

"I saw these people who were worse off than me, and I just had to do something for them," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "Since I had always wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail, this just made sense."

For more information on the Trail to Recovery or to make a donation, visit www.trailtorecovery.org.