BROWNSBURG — After five months and nearly 2,000 miles, Zach Day is back in Brownsburg.
Day, a sergeant in the U.S. Army who served in the Middle East, recently returned from yet another journey. This one was along the Appalachian Trail, in an effort to raise funds for homeless veterans and public awareness for their plight.
“It’s been my honor to serve these (homeless veterans) because if you’ve ever interacted with them, they’re the most appreciative people,” Day said, noting the funds he raised from sponsorships of his hike will go to the Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation. “These guys don’t feel entitled at all, and then they are my veteran brothers and sisters so that means even more to me.”
As for the hike, Day said he encountered a range of sights and came home with a range of memories.
“It was the most fulfilling, uncomfortable at times, joyous, physically and mentally draining, stimulating experience I have ever probably had in my life,” he said.
Along the journey, he posted thoughts and his location from his cell phone to allow friends and family to know where he was.
The Appalachian Trail runs from Georgia to Maine. Each year, people come from throughout the world to make the famous hike.
Day started his hike in Maine and headed south. About 100 miles in, he met a group of three hikers from Dallas, Texas, who were walking for the Wounded Warrior Project. One was a U.S. Marine, the other had served in Iraq, and the other was a civilian friend.
“Everything just fell into place,” he said. “Sounds crazy, but that’s what happened. Obviously we operated on the same mental wavelength because we were all military advocates and there are a lot of inherent characteristics that by default come with people who were in the military and advocate for the military, so it was a great fit. It was just divine intervention.”
Day said in setting out was to cover about 20 miles per day.
“You’d struggle all day going up and down mountains and being covered by woods and the scenery wouldn’t be all that great and then ‘boom,’ all of the sudden you hit the top of the mountain and see that tree line,” he said. “It’s like you’re on top of the world. It’s honestly one of those life-changing things. You get up there and it gives you a whole new perspective on life.”
Day said he spent some nights sleeping out in the rain, but there were other times when the weather was fine and the group would laze around a watering hole and spend the day relaxing.
Despite the mountains and the rough terrain, what eventually derailed the hike was Hurricane Sandy. They struggled through snow that was at times nearly chest high.
Had it not been for other hikers traveling south to north, he said they would have had no warning.
“We were lucky that we even had advanced warning,” he said. “We had hikers coming from the south say ‘you know that Frankenstorm is headed this way? It’s a super hurricane, and a blizzard.’ So then we started getting on our phones, so we had advanced notice to hunker down in the closest town.”
Most towns along the trail route have hostels or inns that cater to hikers. You can spend the night, take a shower, do your laundry, and get a hot meal before heading back out. And in some places, people open up their homes to accommodate the hikers.
“There was a guy, somebody gave me his number further north, that said that when you get to Bastian, Va., call True Brit,” he said. “That was his trail name, and he was a British guy who was in the Special Air Service (SAS), so he was a military advocate. All the pieces were coming together perfectly.
“He had a martial arts studio, a dojo if you will, and he was super accommodating. When he met us at the trail head it was just starting to spit rain. Long story short, we wound up staying for a week at this guy’s dojo for free. The hurricane hit and the snow started falling at night. When you’re doing this long distance hiking, you pack just enough stuff to get by. In the military you pack everything you might possibly need for any wild contingency plan you might have. Bottom line is, we were not ready for this snow.”
After a week of temperatures in the 50s, the group felt like the terrain might be to the point where could travel again. But when they started getting into the ridge lines near 4,000 feet, the snow drifts had them constantly walking in knee deep snow where they couldn’t even see the paint blazes along trees that helped define the trail.
Now home, Day has had a chance to reflect, still in awe about all of the support he got from back home during his time away.
“It’s easy to get jaded because all you hear in the media is about the conflict in the Middle East, and politics, and people thieving from churches, and child molesters and stuff like that,” he said. “And it’s easy to get jaded and think there’s not a whole lot of good left in the world. But I’ll tell you what, people in my community, the ones who supported the fundraiser, it just reinvigorated my hope that there are a lot of good people still out there.
“I was humbled and flattered by how much people have stepped up and it’s all the driving force behind this whole thing, my committee who’d meet,” he said of the American Legion, Sons of the American Legion, Post 331 in Brownsburg, the American Legion Riders, and others. “They’re the ones that kept this whole thing together while I was gone.”
His mission also caught the attention of some Brownsburg High School students who put on a 5K in his honor with the proceeds going toward the HVAF. Surprisingly for them, they got a call two days before the event that Day wanted to appear. They raised nearly $3,000.
BHS senior Morgan Weller, one of three students who put on the Hoofin’ it for Hoosier Vets 5K, said, “It was an honor to have him involved with us and to see him at our race. Just seeing what Zach did, seeing the selflessness and passion inspired us and I hope it inspires other people as well.”
Hannah Paczkowski, who was also involved with the event, added, “It made so much bigger of an impact that he was there. I think in the future I’ll be a lot more conscious that there are people out there that are veterans and they served for us. I think I’ll be a lot more appreciative. One of the goals was to create more awareness that there are homeless veterans in Indiana.”
Nick Kelley, the third student to put on the event, said, “Finding out that one third of all homeless people were veterans just shocked me. They protected everything the United States stands for.”
Day said he will never stop advocating for homeless veterans and does not know where the path will lead him from here, but his passion for the military was only strengthened by his hiking experience. He said he’s mulling several options, including becoming a civilian defense contractor and going back overseas.
“I want to get back in the fight in some way,” he said. “People ask me a lot, and I’ve had to think about why it is that I want to go back over there. When you’re in combat, you have no question in your mind what your role is, what your purpose is. It’s evident. There’s no confusion at all. Being here, it’s a little more complicated. When you’re over there, the peripheral riff raff of being here doesn’t exist. It’s all about staying alive and keeping your buddies alive. So I’m thinking about going back as a civilian.”