Day 1, forget jet lag. Climb a mountain.
Cold. Wet. Tired. A scramble up some rocks to be followed by a zig and a zag. A brief rest and then one last push to the summit … all I could think was “how the heck did these guys make it up this mountain?”
Honestly, I wondered how I made it up Mount Snowdon, Wale’s highest peak. But those “guys” were six injured veterans — 4 British and two Americans — taking part in the Walk of Britain.
Now, the morning’s hike up Snowdon was only about four miles long. Yet, at times it was extremely rocky, and the Welsh weather wasn’t in our favor with off-and-on rain, along with a 20-degree drop in temperature.
And to think, three members of the team struggle with leg injuries, including one with a prosthetic leg … but they made it, just as they had the prior 419 miles of their journey which began 30 days prior in Scotland.
Being there with the Bob Woodruff Foundation, I had the honor of tagging along as they pushed past 500 miles — the midway point of their 10-week, 1,000-mile journey across Scotland, Wales and England.
Beyond selecting the Americans on the team, BWF is one of several sponsors of the expedition, hosted by United Kingdom charity Walking With The Wounded. Each sponsor was afforded the opportunity to join the walk and ours was Week 5 in Wales.
In addition to fundraising, the walk serves as an opportunity to generate awareness about the issues returning veterans face, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Aside from the rain, sheep, and blisters growing on top of blisters — each day spent in Wales was truly unique and inspiring.
Day 2, 19 miles of road to Harlech Castle.
While I knew the American walkers pretty well before the walk’s start, it was days like this that I began to learn the stories of the British team members.
As if it was nothing, Alec Robotham, a former Royal Marine, spoke of the day he was on a routine foot patrol in Sangin, Afghanistan, in 2010.
He was in the middle of the patrol, as a man passed him. Making direct eye contact, Alec said, “Salaam Alaikum (peace to you)” but instead of responding to the greeting, the man continued a few feet past him and detonated the suicide bomb he was carrying.
Fortunately for Alec, much of the blast was absorbed by the pack on his back. However, the remaining blast impact was absorbed mainly by his legs, leaving him with multiple puncture wounds to both legs, a severed main artery in his right leg, puncture wounds to his left foot and right arm, a broken collar bone and hearing damage.
Since then, Alec’s right leg has continued to need surgeries, including multiple skin grafts. He will always suffer from swelling and poor flexibility, but he sees this as a small price to pay considering there was a 90-percent chance that he was going to lose it above the knee.
Day 3, taking the scenic route.
This was was one of the most scenic days during the week, with a 14-mile trek along the coastal path, beginning in Aberystwyth with free coffee courtesy of Starbucks, and a visit from the mayor.
Joining the walk for the day were Bob and Lee Woodruff, which seemed to motivate the walkers — which would be needed at times. Despite it’s beauty, much of the path had steep slopes and climbs.
Ever the journalist, Bob was able to coordinate a live stream during a portion of the walk with ABC News.
I personally found a few stretches extremely difficult, thanks to blisters on one foot, and a pulled hamstring. I relied a lot on the humor of Scott “Scotty” Ransley, a former Royal Marine, to get me through the hills.
Scotty was blinded by shrapnel in one eye when an improvised explosive device tragically killed one of his friends, in Afghanistan in 2011.
Despite this, he constantly finds the humor in situations and makes jokes, often using ridiculous voices. And I must say, he can do a New York accent better than most New Yorkers.
The trek ended in Aberaeron with sandwiches, desserts and tea thanks to the town council; followed by a long drive to a Territorial Army (reservists) center in Abertillery, where we were treated to a curry dinner and slept on cots.
While nothing new for those who had served, it was truly an experience for Ed Toptani, a BWF board member who graciously donated to join us for the week. On a few occasions he joked, “This definitely isn’t the Four Seasons.”
Day 4, a grand send off in Brynmawr.
A beautiful way to start a day, with hundreds of residents, including school children, who lined the streets to salute and greet the walkers.
As local officials made speeches, I couldn’t help but notice that Kirstie Ennis, one of the U.S. Marines on the team, was in the crowd with a wheelchair-bound girl. I’d learn that she seeks out children with disabilities whenever there are events like this — hoping to provide inspiration to them.
Kirstie was a helicopter mechanic and door gunner before her CH-53E crashed in Afghanistan, during her second deployment there, in 2012. Since then, she’s had 38 surgeries which have included facial reconstruction and ongoing limb salvage.
Throughout the walk, she has been wearing an IDEO brace to support her left leg; however, she has made the difficult choice to have the leg amputated after she returns to the United States.
Though she made the decision before the walk, it’s been helpful to discuss the decision with teammate Matt Fisher, a British soldier who was shot through the ankle while on patrol in Afghanistan, in 2009. A year after, he elected to do the same and now walks on a prosthetic.
It was beyond amazing to see Matt walk mile after mile during the week.
Following the ceremony, the team tackled Pen y Fan, the highest mountain in South Wales — which is used by British special forces in their selection process. (Nursing a hamstring injury, I opted to skip this climb and helped set up the finish event with the support crew in Brecon.)
Day 5 saw us on the road again, for 17 miles from Brecon to Builth Wells. AND IT DID NOT RAIN!
Along the way, several motorists stopped to donate. Carrying the bucket each day was Stewart Hill, a former British Army officer who suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in Afghanistan, in 2009.
One couldn’t help but to laugh as people threw money in the bucket and Stewart asked if they knew who they were donating to — usually they didn’t, but did by the time he delivered his elevator speech.
Yet what was more disconcerting was the number of people who told him that he doesn’t look wounded, which he of course found frustrating.
Working in the veteran space, I know all too well that hidden wounds like TBI and post-traumatic stress impact 1-in-5 American post-9/11 veterans. I can only imagine that the numbers are similar in the UK.
Despite that, Stewart remained positive. Having grown up in Wales, he tried to teach me a few Welsh sayings; however, “bore da” is the only one that I could remember (meaning good morning). I’m pretty sure he grew tired of hearing me say it.
The day’s march ended with a large welcome in the town center by the residents of Builth Wells. As festive as it was, Kirstie and fellow U.S. Marine Andrew Bement couldn’t wait to drive away, as the Bob Woodruff Foundation had flown members of their families over to visit them.
For Andrew, it was his wife Dana. Kirstie was visited by her parents Geoff and Catherine Ennis (both of whom had served in the Marines), her sister Kaylee, and boyfriend Brian Meyer — also a wounded Marine/triple amputee
Following a warm reunion and hearty meal (Andrew enjoys fish and chips every chance he gets) the families retired for the evening, ready to join them on the trail the next morning.
Day 6, the last day of BWF week, began on Offa’s Dyke which straddles the Welsh/English border.
And for the first time during the week, we encountered someone who could care less about our mission — a large, stubborn bull.
Standing right in the middle of the path, the steer refused to budge — even when Scotty tossed his water bottle near him, hoping to scare him off.
We had a bit of a laugh when Stewart chided Scotty “the Marine” for being afraid to reclaim his bottle … of course, Stewart didn’t offer to retrieve it either.
Instead, everyone took a detour through a wet field. Bull 1, Walkers 0.
The day’s 17 miles winded through farms, towns and a few large hills — and at one point, one side of the street was Wales and the other England.
All smiles that day was Andrew, who at times could be seen holding hands with his wife Dana along the way. While the grin was bigger this day, it’s important to note that he was caught smiling many times during the week.
Having met Andrew in New York twice before the walk, it was amazing to see the transformation the expedition has had on him.
Andrew struggles with PTS, developed over two tours in Iraq as an infantryman, and one in Afghanistan as an infantry officer. Having just been medically-retired in March, Andrew is early in his recovery and can be very introverted.
And though he still tends to drop to the back of the pack when cameras are around, he’s been noticeably more talkative, less soft-spoken, and truly engaged — not only with his teammates, but the public they encounter along the trail.
“I’ve been put in a lot of uncomfortable situations while I’ve been here,” said Andrew, “but they have been opportunities for real, personal growth in my life.”
The day ended at Chirk Castle where the team was greeted by dozens of Boy Scouts.
The scouts were able to ask questions and learn why the wounded veterans were taking on the expedition —and in the process, understand that those injured in war are not defined by their injuries.
That evening, we all lodged at a hotel in Oswestry, just across the border in England. The Rugby World Cup match between Wales and England was that night, and fittingly, Wales won — just as its people and scenery (minus the rain) had won us over throughout the week. (Of course, you might not want to repeat that to my new English friends.)
After a warm meal and a few toasts, we said our farewells as Bob Woodruff Foundation Week came to an end. Of course, the Walk of Britain continues through Nov. 1, when the team will complete its 1,000-mile journey of healing and hope at Buckingham Palace, in London.
Following the walk, the entire team will be guests of the foundation at the 9th Annual Stand Up for Heroes at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, in New York, Nov. 10. Until then, you can follow the walk and support the team’s efforts through the Bob Woodruff Foundation here.
The Bob Woodruff Foundation thanks the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation for its generous support of the Walk of Britain.