Arizona Trail Association VETS program offers camaraderie in the desert

Caring for our military veterans is an awesome responsibility, particularly toward vets who may be dealing with the after-effects of combat or other stressful service, and while we might think of the Veterans Health Administration as the vehicle for that care, there are other ways to help.

That is where the Arizona Trail Association (ATA) enters the picture.

For nearly two years, the ATA, a nonprofit established in 1994 to manage the 800-mile Arizona National Scenic Trail (AZT), has administered a program called Veteran Engagement & Trail Stewardship (VETS) designed to help vets enjoy the healing qualities of Arizona’s natural wonders.

“There’s a nature-based therapy aspect the VA healthcare system has yet to recognize that could offset costs of prescription medications, hospitalization and help reduce the suicide rate,” said Michael “Chappy” Chappell, who has led VETS since February 2021. “Let’s just call it what it is: Nature’s therapy. Nature is the perfect prescription.”

Chappell is a Tucson native and Navy veteran who served from 1999 to 2004 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. As a civilian, he has a rich and varied career working as an EMT and in veterinary medicine. More recently, Chappell worked for several outdoor businesses in the Tucson area until the COVID-19 pandemic set him on a search for a new career.

He has found his true calling though, helping his brothers and sisters in arms as they perform a public service, building and maintaining an iconic Arizona attraction.

The Arizona Trail

The AZT is one of 11 federally recognized National Scenic Trails in the United States, on par with such well-known trails as the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail. It stretches from the Mexican border near Douglas to Utah-Arizona border. Completed in 2011, the trail is the brainchild of the late Dale Shewalter, who moved to Arizona in 1974 and fell in love with the desert. In 1985, he hiked from Nogales to the Utah state line, demonstrating that it was possible.

He became the AZT’s first paid coordinator, but died in January 2010, a little less than two years before the trail was completed. His legacy remains intact through the existence of the trail and in the hearts of its volunteers.

The trail consists of 43 “passages,” and visits 36 towns along the way. The southern Arizona portion from Nogales to Oracle traverses approximately 227 miles through two “sky islands,” the Santa Ritas and the Santa Catalinas. Tucson is the largest “gateway community” on the trail.

Thru-hiking the AZT generally takes five to eight weeks and adventurers from all over the globe bring their sense of adventure — as well as tourist dollars — to take on the challenge.

The AZT VETS program is not only about stewardship of the national treasure but also offers a chance for participants to enjoy a sense of camaraderie in a safe and non-threatening environment.

“I’ve seen it work its magic many times over at this point during events where people come out with a certain expectation, and they walk away feeling like they got something out of it,” Chappell said. “Not just by what the experience gave them, but also in the form of connection to the people that were in attendance with them, and hopefully they feel like there’s a little bit of a new connection, a new bond made during that time together.”

The outings take place on various parts of the trail from the low deserts to the heights of the Mogollon Rim to the Kaibab Plateau. The work takes shape as either short-day outings for trail maintenance or multi-day camping adventures to create new trails or repair backcountry trails that are too remote for regular maintenance.

A volunteer effort

The VETS program is volunteer-based so Chappell spends much of his administrative time organizing and reaching out to new recruits, but he does have a core of reliable veterans who have joined him in his quest.

One of Chappell’s primary volunteers is Air Force veteran Charles Neal, who spent 41 years in service from the time he graduated high school in 1979 to his recent retirement in 2020. During his career, he spent 30 years as an aircraft mechanic, nearly a decade in the intelligence service and held a command leadership position his final five years.

“I’ve been hiking ever since we moved to Arizona about 20 years ago and just wanted something to do in retirement that was not being forced upon me,” he said. “I’m doing this because I want to. I’m on the trails, so I might as well give back, and the question I asked myself was, ‘If not me, then who?’”

Neal participated in hiking clubs on base and has done multiple “rim-to-rims” of the Grand Canyon and hiked about 350 miles of the AZT in sections. He also volunteers for Saguaro National Park West, scouting trails, identifying damage to the desert and carrying provisions to help hikers who may not have prepared for the often harsh conditions encountered in the desert.

During his time as a VETS volunteer, he has worked trails near the southern border and made several trips to Flagstaff, as well multiple events from four to six days each.

For Neal, a lot of the satisfaction he gets is offering the succor of camaraderie that can be found around the campfire, far from the hustle and bustle of daily life.

“It’s the older cats, the Vietnam guys that I respect, because they’re still out there working the trail with me and can out-work me any day,” he said. “But when we sit around the campfire and they need to talk, I have a great ear. So it’s good for me and It’s good for them.”

For Chappell, volunteer outreach is difficult, but as the program matures he feels he is making inroads to the veteran community. He said that many of his events are about half and half returning participants to neophytes, and that his face has become more recognized at the many veteran stand downs — programs that help homeless vets — resource fairs and ceremonies related to military communities.

“Because of the nature of volunteerism, you can never really get someone to commit fully unless they’re there,” he said. “The biggest struggle is not necessarily participation, it’s about getting them to commit and show up. But if they come to my event, not only will they have an amazing experience, but they will feel better by the time they’re done with the weekend, and I’m there for them the entire way.”

For “newbie” Chad Flannery, the history he has found along the trail is as important as the camaraderie he has found around the campfire.

Flannery served in the Navy from 2000 to 2006 and his unit received a Presidential Unit Citation for securing the Iraqi oil fields in the initial days of the invasion.

His first trip with VETS was Passage 42, the Kaibab Plateau, near the Utah border.

“That was my first time on the Arizona Trail and it was the 165th anniversary of the Mountain Meadows Massacre,” he said. “It was quite fascinating and led me down a very awesome rabbit hole all the way back to Johnny Appleseed. I was like, ‘Holy (expletive), there’s so much history here.’”

The massacre was an ugly blot on southwestern history, when in September 1857 a community of Mormons joined by a band of Paiutes, massacred about 120 immigrants traveling by wagon train to California. 

Flannery was initially hesitant to join the VETS program, but feels as if he has found a lifelong friend in Chappell.

“Thus far, I would have to say the camaraderie is the best part for sure,” Flannery said. “They got me belting out songs around the campfire. They said we’re in a band now, so I have to learn how to play the bass.”

He also sees the program and the trail as an opportunity to expand educational opportunities, ecological conservation as well as bridge political differences that are tearing at the fabric of our society.

VETS going forward

Chappell said that as the program matures, so does his ability to manage it, both the “hard skills” of the physical aspect, as well as the “soft skills” dealing with myriad personalities away from the support of civilization.

“I think by virtue of doing several of these at this point, I’m gleaning information all the time,” he said. “Most of it’s positive, but I always honor and welcome the negative or constructive feedback as well, because it helps me see something that I wasn’t able to see.”

And of course, there is always the eternal search for funding, as the ATA is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dependent on memberships, donations and grants to survive.

According to Chappell, there is a new program that is helping with overall trail maintenance known as the Fox Squad. The name is derived from the military phonetic alphabet, where the letter “f” is notated as “foxtrot.”

The Fox Squad is a small group of paid contractors, funded by a generous grant through the Coronado National Forest, who go out into the field for days at a time to work on backcountry trails allowing for a “deeper and more immersive” experience.

Ultimately, the program is about the spirit of volunteerism and camaraderie that can only be gleaned by a group of individuals who’ve gone through similar experiences.

“Where I see it going as I get more comfortable in this role, is providing much more personalized and intimate experiences,” Chappell said. “I feel confident they’ll walk away with something other than just getting dirty with me over the weekend and maybe really, really appreciating a shower at the end of it.”

The next VETS event will be the second Veterans Day Volunteer Special Event, taking place on the Butterfly Trail near the top of Mount Lemmon at Crystal Spring from Thursday, Nov. 10 through Sunday, Nov. 13.

For information on this or other upcoming events, or to learn more about the ATA, go to aztrail.org, or contact Chappell at chappy@aztrail.org or leave a message at 970-779-5740.  

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