Somber visit

Kevin Wilson and his service dog Calvin stop for a picture in front of the Flight 93 National Memorial sign during their hike along the 9/11 National Memorial Trail on Sunday, Sept. 11, 2022.

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. – Dressed in a rain jacket and hiking pants, Kevin Wilson stood in awe at Flight 93 National Memorial on Sunday.

It was the first time the Arizona resident had ever visited the somber site.

“What they’ve done with all of these grounds is amazing,” he said.

The visit was his second stop on a nearly 1,300-mile hike from Washington, D.C., to New York along the in-progress September 11th National Memorial Trail that connects all three places where hijacked planes crashed on Sept. 11, 2001.

Wilson is accompanied by his faithful companion, Calvin, a Labrador retriever service dog, and is hiking the path as part of Warrior Expeditions, a veteran- run nonprofit that offers outdoor experiences to help veterans transition from wartime to civilian life. The group also offers biking and paddling excursions.

Wilson discovered the organization after leaving Walter Reed Army Medical Center and searching for ways to get outdoors.

“I was very fascinated by what they do,” he said.

Wilson spent seven years in the U.S. Army and did two tours of duty in Iraq. After an injury during his service put him in the hospital, Wilson was medically retired from military service and given an honorable discharge.

He initially signed up with Warrior Expeditions to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, but couldn’t participate in that trip. The group pivoted to him paddling the Mississippi River, and afterward he applied again to do the PCT, but again couldn’t hike the trail because of a lack of available permits.

That’s when the organization’s executive director, Sean Gobin, reached out to Wilson about “pioneering” the 9/11 trail. If Wilson finishes hiking the entire length of the trail, he’ll be the first to do so.

He began his journey at the Pentagon on Aug. 24 with fellow veteran Jeremy Pease and Calvin, but Pease had to leave the trip in Cumberland, Maryland, for personal reasons.

Wilson said the trip has been a learning curve, but in a good way.

He arrived in Shanksville on Saturday with plans to camp outside the memorial and roam its grounds on Sunday. After learning of the anniversary events, he contacted the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department to see if he could camp behind the firehouse, which they agreed to.

However, the ground there is uneven, and following a discussion, firefighter John Abramovich invited Wilson to camp in his father’s yard, a kindness Wilson is grateful for.

“He’s been a great guest,” Shanksville fire Chief Jim Bent said, adding that the firefighters have always opened their doors at the station to help people and are glad to do it.

On Sunday, Wilson spent the day listening to first lady Jill Biden and other speakers at the Flight 93 memorial and exploring the grounds.

“It was great to hear,” he said. “It was just really humbling to hear their stories.”

Wilson added that hearing the stories from the families of the Flight 93 passengers and crew was a “real down-to-Earth moment” that reminded him why he joined the military.

He planned to spend one more day in Shanksville and explore the rest of the memorial on Monday before taking his Thule cart, which weighs around 100 pounds when full of supplies, through Cambria County and across the eastern part of Pennsylvania while following the rest of the trail, which ends at the site of the National September 11 Memorial Museum.

“I think it’s great to have an opportunity to reach out and organize trips with many different stakeholders and groups,” said Jeffrey McCauley, September 11th National Memorial Trail Alliance acting president.

He helped Wilson get across the memorial on Sunday, said he hoped he and Calvin enjoy their time on the trail and looks forward to continuing working with Warrior Expeditions.

To help both organizations, Wilson is taking notes along his journey that he hopes will help future hikers and travelers on the trail.

He said he also hopes to personally find some peace on the trail. He said he’s recently lost friends he served with and people he knew in the military. That’s caused significant mental strain.

If all goes according to plan, Wilson plans to finish his hike by Nov. 15, which will give him nearly a month before his second child is born. He said his wife has been extremely supportive throughout his journey and he’s thankful for that.

To follow Wilson’s progress, visit his Facebook page “Calvin’s Chronicle.”

Joshua Byers is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 814-532-5054. Follow him on Twitter @Journo_Josh.

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