In September 2017, United States Marine Corps veteran Michael York and his dad went on a mission to summit Mount Washington. During quiet moments on the hike, York found himself focusing on the negative aspects of his service that he carried with him when he got out, which was taking away from the positivity of being outdoors with his dad. Once the two of them reached the summit, York felt an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment, self-worth, and pride.
“On the way down, I didn’t have any of those negative feelings anymore,” he says.
The hiking community reminded him of the military—goal-oriented, mission-based, and everyone being in it together. He quickly fell in love with the outdoors and bonding with the hiking community. This environment was doing something transformative for him and he felt inspired to help other veterans experience the same feeling.
“I think one of the biggest things veterans deal with when they get out of the military is kind of a sense that they’ve lost their community,” he says.
In 2019, York started Veterans on the 48 (VOT48), a group that is committed to getting more veterans outdoors in order to support their mental and physical health. York began by connecting with veterans online, which eventually led to their first group hike on North Twin for Flags on the 48 in 2019, which is an annual memorial hike that honors those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001. Since that day, 116 veterans have hiked with the group.
As of August 2023, 69 veterans have received a VOT48 finishers patch, which York created for veterans who finish hiking all the 4,000 footers. In 2021, VOT48 became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization to further support veterans by providing donated gear and offering Wilderness First Aid courses. One time during a raffle, a member of the group won a hiking backpack that Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) donated to the group. The member wore the backpack for a thru-hike that he dreamed of completing. He later mentioned that getting that backpack not only changed his life, but also saved it.
“You [may] think we’re just getting somebody a backpack, but there’s so much more behind it,” says York.
One of the veterans on the first VOT48 group hike was Navy veteran, Yuma Haidara, who was the first woman to ever hike with them and is now an outreach coordinator for the group. Her favorite part about the group is the genuine love and support everyone has for one another.
“You just talk about stuff that might have been buried or even forgotten about, and it’s very therapeutic,” says Navy veteran Jessica Bryant, who was the second woman to attend a hike with the group and is also an outreach coordinator. “You don’t realize it until you’re [hiking with the group], but you’re like, ‘Oh, I needed that.’”
Many veterans are hesitant at first to attend a group hike due to their fear of hiking too slow, but Haidara explains how the group moves at a comfortable pace so they’re able to hold conversations, get to know one another, and feel good on the way up.
“The biggest thing we hear after hikes is, ‘I wish I joined sooner,’” says Haidara.
Haidara and Bryant, who met through the group and call each other “soul sisters,” both lead women’s hikes, which became this safe space where women feel comfortable being vulnerable and leaning on one another. Haidara says that they’ll even do other activities together, such as going to the movies or rock climbing.
York’s favorite part about VOT48 is when group members get together and hang out off the trail. “Even if they never come hike with us again, they have now found somebody that they can turn to, and lean on, and do things with,” he says.
If a veteran has no interest in or is unable to hike, there are other ways they can get involved with the group and help veterans. For the second year in a row, VOT48 is participating in the DAV 5K at DCR Fort Independence at Castle Island, which takes place on Veteran’s Day in Boston. The race honors veterans and raises awareness for what they go through.
VOT48 also runs in a race for Home Base, which is a national nonprofit that is committed to helping veterans heal their inner wounds. “Over the last three years, we’ve raised about $21,000 for the Home Base program and their PTSD research and treatment,” says York.
With help from the United States Forest Service (USFS), VOT48 trained 29 veterans in level-one trail maintenance in 2021. They performed 21 miles of trail maintenance on 10 different trails in summer and fall. In 2022, VOT48 adopted the Mount Tecumseh Trail from Tripoli Road, which they now maintain consistently. Led by Greg York, who is York’s dad and the group’s trail crew coordinator, the crew will go out to the trail a couple of times per year and clear it out. York says that the trail crew is a different, yet fun way to get veterans outside.
“Everyone has this sense of service and this desire to serve, give back, and to take care of the community they’re from,” says York. “We wanted to give back to the trails that gave us so much.”
This year, VOT48 participated in Flags on the 48 for the fifth time, on Mount Monroe. York says that this is usually their biggest group hike event of the year. During the event and every other group hike, they follow a “no man left behind” mentality, meaning the group will always summit together.
Whether a veteran chooses to hike with the group all the time, just once, or get involved in other ways, each veteran is still an important member of the community whom the group cares about. Members often check in on one another to let each other know that they have unconditional support.
“They’re a part of a community that is there for them,” says York. “I never wanted it to end at the trailhead.”
Veterans on the 48 is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to getting more veterans outside and onto the trails to promote healthy lifestyles both physically and mentally.
Where to Find Veterans on the 48: