If you really want to be happy, nobody can stop you.
It isn’t that combat veteran Tommy Gathman didn’t see some horrible shit in Iraq, nor do some things he isn’t necessarily proud of, but he’s not your typical combat vet who might be suffering from a dark past. He is a happy boy. Actually, that is the first thing that strikes you when you meet him, his supreme joy of life.
How did he come out of four years serving in the Marine Corp as an infantry rifleman in Iraq seemingly unscathed without any signs of post-traumatic stress disorder? You wonder.
It isn’t that he doesn’t feel deeply, (he does) nor have a huge heart, (one of the largest I’ve encountered).
OK, I ‘m prejudice. Tommy is my boy and became that way before he even left Springer Mountain, GA last March. His family hails from Lewisburg, just 2 ½ hours up the road from me. When I learned this last year, I invited him and his Marine Corp buddy, Adam Bautz, down to share some time with my husband and I- Todd Gladfelter- both Triple Crowners who also operated a hostel on the AT for several years. We wanted to offer these them any last minute advice and answer any questions they might have only weeks before departure.
Tommy revealed that it was his birthday- on that exact day, so we had a nice dinner and I baked him a cake, sang to him and then put the boys up in my writing guest cabin and had breakfast in the morning before sending them off. It cemented our friendship.
Of course, climbing Katahdin with him at the end of the trail made us even closer, but it was what occurred this past autumn that really made him become part of our family.
Tommy had a few hundred miles to hike in PA/NJ that he skipped on his thru-hike because of an injured knee. He set it up so I got to slack pack him north and south of our place. We had the delightful privilege of having him as a guest for 10 evenings. No, that wasn’t too much. It actually wasn’t enough.
Having him relax in the evenings with our family, share a meal, do the dishes, fire up our Finnish sauna and sweat together, share a few miles of a hike during the day, all the delightful conversation, and tremendous LAUGHTER made me really get to know and appreciate this fine human being. My 24 year old daughter, Sierra, also began to feel like Tommy was her older brother.
When I met Tommy’s parents in Millinocket, Maine, after he climbed Katahdin last year, I understood a little better why he is so successful at being happy. His mother adores him and Tommy adores his mother. She laughed and told me stories on what a challenge he was to raise, that she was hoping she could just get him to reach his 18th year alive, THAT would be a tremendous feat alone.
Tommy Gathman has a tremendous support system. This much was obvious. His parents and family smother him in unconditional love. Because of their active presence in his life, he was able to forgive himself once he returned home from Iraq, silence any voices that might be murmuring in his ear, dismiss any nightmares, love himself and move on. I realized that as a Marine or a soldier, you could go through hell and back, experience all kinds of horror, but if you are blessed with a loving support system waiting for you back home, if you have a positive outlook and if you continue to go into the lap of nature and walk and heal, your life won’t just be a happy, it will be a joy-filled.
There are people that I know who live private lives and don’t open their home to many. Todd and I live as though we still run a hostel. But the real gift receivers here are us, more so than someone like Tommy. He enriched our lives just by hiking through it. He became family.
Tommy will be moving onto the hiking the Continental Divide Trail this year- that trail is 1,000 miles longer than the AT- the trail we covered in its entirety with our young children and llamas. Anyone who has the privilege of hiking the CDT with Tommy this summer will have the gift of his very positive attitude and happy go-lucky nature to get them through the tough parts of the trail. His happiness is infectious. Sometimes, that is all it takes to keep going.