HARTFORD, Conn. — For many, closing a chapter in their life entails a party, a celebration, maybe a cake or a night out with friends for drinks. Some favor something more private, maybe a solo trip across Europe or a period of staying home to decompress and to prepare for what’s next. For U.S. Army Maj. (ret.) Rick Marshall, conquering the Pacific Crest Trail, a 5 month, 2,650-mile-long trek across multiple states from the Mexican border in Southern California to the border of Canada would be his way of turning the page on his military career and beginning his transition to becoming a civilian.
Marshall, originally from Vernon, Connecticut, enlisted in the active component of the Army in 1989, less than three months after graduating high school. Only one job stood out to him: Infantryman.
“It didn’t even occur to me to do anything else,” explained Marshall. “I want to be in the Infantry, that is what the Army is all about.”
After completing his basic and advanced training, Marshall signed out on holiday block leave on December 10 and headed home to Connecticut for Christmas. This was his only reprieve before heading to his first unit of assignment, the 193rd Infantry Brigade stationed in Panama.
Panama was “hot” as Marshall put it. The country had been under Panamanian military control after a series of military coups overthrew the presidency, deteriorating the relations between Panama and the United States. Tensions boiled over on December 15, 1989 when four U.S. service members were detained by Panamanian military forces and shot at as they attempted to flee. Of the four, two were wounded in this incident, including U.S. Marine Corps 1st Lt. Robert Paz, who died of his wounds as his comrades tried to rush him to Gorgas Hospital. This incident sparked the U.S. to initiate Operation Just Cause, a month-long campaign to safeguard U.S. personnel and interests after Panama's declaration of war against the country.
“I missed the start of Operation Just Cause by eight days,” explained Marshall. “I flew back down to South Carolina and I think that was on December 28th, or 29th, flew into Panama, got assigned to my unit, was out on the streets patrolling Panama City just before New Year’s.”
By the time Marshall had boots on the ground, the majority of fighting was over. His unit was now tasked with performing security missions.
“The combat part was pretty quick,” explained Marshall. “We were pretty much at that point doing security missions, and we were doing security for the presidential palace for the new president of Panama.”
Following his time in Panama, Marshall would transfer to Fort Knox in January of 1991 and then to South Korea in December of 1994. Here, Marshall served with the 2nd Infantry Division out of Camp Hovey, just south of the DMZ.
“I was a gunner on a Bradley,” said Marshall. “I started off being the company commander’s gunner.”
Marshall would not be the CO’s gunner for long though as he was soon transferred to second platoon. Here, he was mentored by a Sgt. 1st Class who had worked in and around Bradleys since the vehicle entered service.
“He knew that Bradley front to back, inside and out, he taught me everything, gunning and all that kind of stuff,” Marshall continued. “We go on to company gunnery and I end up shooting top gun out of the entire company.”
Despite Marshall accumulating accolades in Korea, things took a sudden turn for the worse. Marshall's stepfather suffered a brain aneurysm back at home. It was not long past midnight when Marshall was woken up to receive the news.
“So, knock on the door at two in the morning, three in the morning, something like that, my time…walk down there, sit in the SDO office with some officer who’s not in my chain of command and I don’t know…and just verbatim reads this Red Cross message,” explained Marshall. “It was horrible.”
This incident weighed heavily on Marshall and directly influenced him to decide to separate from the service in August 1995.
“I had done my duty, I did my initial tour for my initial four years, I had done a three-year extension, got all the awards and decorations, no trouble or anything like that,” said Marshall. “I think it’s time for me to go home.”
After coming home, Marshall went to college. Despite making headway on his education, he felt like he was not getting anywhere. He stopped going to school and started working as a sports and camping counselor at the Vernon YMCA in the spring of 1999, running the sports and camping programs for two years. Here, he would get the idea to join the Connecticut Army National Guard and use his college credits to attend Officer Candidate School.
“A few people that I met were like you should go to OCS,” said Marshall. “And, I’m like, really, I can do that?”
Marshall walked back into uniform as a sergeant and once again took on the role of an infantryman in the interim. He would start OCS, going from phase zero to phase three, and graduate as an Infantry officer in July 2001.
Two months later, Al-Qaeda hijacked four commercial airliners, crashing one into the Pentagon, and two into the World Trade Center. The fourth plane crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after passengers on board struggled with their hijackers in an attempt to regain control of the plane. It would be the deadliest attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor.
Marshall worked in the Operations and Plans section, also known as the G-3, inside Connecticut’s Joint Force Headquarters at the time.
“It was my second or first day there,” explained Marshall. “So, a woman came up, was like can you turn on the radio, we just heard something about a plane flying into a building.”
The building came alive as everyone scrambled to get as much information as they could about what was going on.
“Nobody really knew what to do,” said Marshall. “What can you do, you don’t have orders to do anything, I was watching it live on tv when both buildings came down with a bunch of other people that a year to two years later would all be in combat.”
Despite the absence of orders from higher headquarters immediately following the attacks, local leaders immediately went to work putting plans into action to safeguard Connecticut’s military infrastructure. Some members of the Joint Force Headquarters drew weapons out of the arms room and took up positions as armed guards. In the days that followed, Marshall and members of his unit, the 102nd Infantry Regiment, plus other Connecticut National Guard units, took up positions guarding critical infrastructure across the state, such as the Millstone nuclear power plant, the Gold Star Memorial Bridge and various train stations.
Marshall spent weeks guarding the Millstone nuclear power plant. He never encountered any foreign adversaries, but consistently ran into people who had reservations on how he secured the facility.
“I got yelled at because I had this M60 pointed down this long road, which is what you should do,” said Marshall. “And then was told, please don’t do that.”
Marshall even requested a tube-launched, optically tracked, wirelessly guided, or TOW, missile system to defend the plant against possible vehicle borne threats, like vehicle borne improvised explosive devices, or VBIEDs, commonly found later in the war on terror. That request would be denied.
The mission went on for several weeks with each company in the 102nd rotating in and out protecting these sites. After that, Marshall was sent to West Point to perform security operations as part of Operation Noble Eagle III.
Marshall’s next chapter in the Global War on Terror didn’t start until 2004. Marshall was sent overseas to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom II with members of 3rd Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 102nd Infantry Regiment, as part of an all-volunteer platoon sent to bolster Arkansas's 39th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. Marshall and his men fell in with Echo troop, 151st Cavalry Regiment. Their mission was to conduct stability operations in and around Baghdad.
The tone for the deployment was set almost immediately upon arriving in country. Following a two-day vehicle convoy from Kuwait up to Camp Taji, a former Iraqi Republican Guard installation, now the operating base for Marshall and his unit, Marshall and his men found themselves on the receiving end of a rocket attack on April 7, 2004.
“I think it was about maybe midday,” said Marshall. “We weren’t even on that camp 12 hours and we got our first rocket attack and first KIA (Killed in action).”
Sgt. 1st Class William Labadie, an Arkansas National Guard soldier with Echo troop, was killed after shrapnel from the rocket attack struck him as he was attempting to run to one of the reinforced bunkers used by coalition forces for cover in the event of such an attack.
“Some of my guys and a couple of Arkansas guys dragged Sergeant Labadie in at the other end of the bunker,” recalled Marshall. “They were trying to do some CPR on him but he had taken a piece of shrapnel.” “We thought he was dead, instantly, but by the time they got to the bunker he wasn’t coming back.”
Two days later, on April 9, 2004, Marshall’s unit suffered another casualty.
While conducting combat patrols in response to the rocket attack days prior, a convoy of five vehicles from the 102nd were hit by a complex and effective ambush. Insurgents drilled under the road the convoy traveled over and pushed an artillery shell into a hole which was used to initiate the attack. Following the explosion, PKC machine guns, RPK machine guns and RPG-7 rocket propelled grenade launchers opened up on the soldiers. Here, 22-year-old Simsbury native Sgt. Felix DelGreco would be killed after being shot. He would be the first Connecticut National Guardsmen to die in Iraq.
“I had to walk down the line [of his platoon] and just tell them Sgt. DelGreco is dead, you have five minutes to absorb that and then I want all squad leaders and the platoon sergeant at the hood of my truck, and that…sucked,” Marshall recalled, thinking back on his immediate decisions after the aftermath of the ambush. “How do you do it, especially when I gotta tell them we’re not done, we’re working this afternoon, we could be out here for days…so I guess my approach was doing the cold water treatment, we’ll deal with this later.”
Marshall believed there to be a time and a place for everything, and now, especially at the onset of the deployment, he could not have his soldiers break down and be unable to conduct operations.
“It’s not now, we have to get out of here,” Marshall recalled. “It happened right at the beginning of our tour, we’ve got 12 more months of this, we have no idea what is going to happen and so we figured it’s gonna be like this from here on out, who else is going to get killed.”
Unfortunately for Marshall and the 102nd, it would indeed be like this from here on out. Months later, on December 11, 2004, another soldier, 21-year-old Spc. Robert Hoyt of Ashford, Connecticut, was killed while out on an ammo convoy escort mission. His vehicle was hit by an explosively formed penetrator, or EFP, a shaped charge designed to penetrate vehicle armor. The blast was so powerful it blew Hoyt out of his vehicle and he was struck by a truck that was part of the convoy.
Hoyt was medevac'd out by helicopter and taken to a hospital. Some time later, Marshall received a call from the hospital informing him that Hoyt didn’t make it.
“So, after a while third platoon comes wheeling in, I’m standing outside the TOC (Tactical Operations Center), because obviously they want to know what’s happening, we didn't tell them on the radio, we will update them verbally when they get back up to Taji,” said Marshall. “Montes jumps out of his truck and he’s looking at me and I just remember looking right at his eyes and I’m like, we lost him, and Montes just kind of lost his shit right in front of me, so did a lot of the other guys. Come to find why it struck them so badly was because they had gotten him on the litter, they were moving him to the helicopter, he was talking, and I remember Montes said as they were loading him on he kept saying, I love you guys, I love you guys. He said it three times or so as they were putting him onto the helicopter. Those end up being the last thing he says to them before he succumbed to his injuries.”
Hoyt would be the last soldier from the 102nd to be killed during Marshall’s tour. By the end of the deployment in March 2005, the men of the 102nd would receive six Bronze Star Medals, two posthumously, six Army Commendation Medals with V device for valor, 33 Army Commendation Medals and four Purple Hearts, two posthumously. The awards would never be able to make up for the loss of DelGreco and Hoyt, and the emotional toll of the deployment weighed heavily on Marshall and other members of the 102nd to the point that a year later Marshall organized the entire platoon to go together to group therapy.
“One day, we had been back for a year, a couple of the guys called me and they’re like, hey Sir, we got some real problems going on here, I’m like okay, well, what happened…they’re like, well, this one guy wrecked his car, it caught on fire, he’s fine, he walked away…okay, but I think we need some help,” recalled Marshall. “We ended up connecting with this guy at the Newington Vet Center and we arranged with him, but me saying I would go to counseling got everybody else to go too.”
Marshall and his platoon would go to counseling once a month. According to the counselor, their group was the only group of veterans who served together in combat and received counseling through a veteran center as a unit across the country.
“There, that started the process,” said Marshall. “It’s like okay, now, we can talk about this, we had all these things, different things, that we had to work through just to get ourselves right in the head and bring us back to a certain level of normality.”
What happened next was anything but normal.
Six years later, on May 4, 2012, Marshall received a call from his daughter’s step grandfather, Dave, while training out at the National Training Center for another upcoming deployment. Katelyn, his 18- year-old daughter, who was living in Kentucky, had passed away. She had overdosed on heroin and then drowned in a bathtub.
Marshall initially thought she ran away or disappeared upon hearing that Katelyn was gone. Dave had to explain she wasn't missing, and that she had overdosed. Marshall didn’t believe he was serious at first but after continuing to talk to Dave the reality of the situation hit him.
Marshall had no idea she was using drugs, it completely blindsided him.
“Looking back in hindsight, there were some clues,” said Marshall. “She lived with her mom, so I didn’t have that kind of day-to-day interaction with her, sometimes you don’t know until something bad happens…and I certainly am not nominating myself as parent of the year anytime soon.”
Marshall immediately began working to fly out to meet with his family and deal with this head on. He pulled out his tablet while in the training area and booked a flight from Las Vegas to Connecticut. At first, his unit insisted he wait for a Red Cross message, like the one that he received when his stepfather was gravely ill, but as he now was working as an Active Guard Reserve Captain, he had “plenty of dough” and figured it would be quicker to buy his own flight instead. The unit relented, authorized the trip and Marshall was ferried three hours down to McCarran International Airport, now Harry Reid International Airport, for his flight.
Marshall landed in Connecticut and traveled by car down to Kentucky. He attended his daughter’s funeral and afterwards spent a week at his house in Oregon. He traveled back to Connecticut from Oregon in three days, never stopping to process the whirlwind of trauma he had just gone through and immediately went back to work.
Marshall, consciously or not, chose to ignore his grief. At the time, although he didn’t know it yet, a blood clot was forming in his leg. It wasn’t until he went for a hike on a section of the Pacific Crest Trail, also known as the PCT, the following month with longtime friend U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. William Kenyon, now retired, that he would realize just how much he needed help.
The pair started their hike in Oregon at the end of July. The trip was originally intended as a vacation for Kenyon, together they would do a multi-day hike and tackle part of the PCT. Marshal’s calf was swollen and it hurt to walk but he carried on like he always had. The only problem was their vehicle was dropped off at their planned stopping point…36 miles away.
“I know something is wrong, this is bad, I can’t walk,” recalled Marshall. “We get to the first campsite, I set up my tent, Will starts the fire and he’s thinking we’re gonna be sitting around the fire, kumbaya, and all this kind of stuff, and I just get in my tent and lay down, I can’t stand, I can’t sit, the only thing that feels good is laying down…I have to do that for two more days.”
The pair eventually made it back to the truck and drove back to Marshall’s residence. The next morning, Kenyon discovered Marshall sitting downstairs with a block of ice on his leg. The pair locked eyes with each other, “Dude, take me to the hospital.”
Kenyon drove Marshall to a nearby clinic where a doctor examined Marshall’s leg. The doctor immediately demanded that Marshall go to the hospital. The hospital staff performed some tests and informed Marshall there was a blood clot that ran from his upper thigh to the bottom of his left leg.
“I should have died,” said Marshall. “I should have had about 20 different embolisms, but nothing ever broke off, it just stayed in there and just clotted.”
Marshall was immediately put on blood thinners. He eventually flew back to Connecticut but was dropped from an upcoming deployment due to the clot. Here, he would have a lot of time to think about how close he came to dying and he began the process of coming to terms with losing his daughter.
“I hit that point,” explained Marshall. “My grief was so intense that part of me with that blood clot was like, let’s just get it over with, it won’t be suicide if the blood clot gets me because it’s not like I put the gun in my mouth or swallowed a bunch of pills, it wasn’t an intentional plan, but my subconscious was like, you know what, we can all make this go away right now, we can just end this.”
Thankfully, Marshall had no complications with his recovery. The blood clot never broke loose, he never suffered an embolism. The infantryman who had dealt with everything life had thrown at him had finally met his match. Marshall decided it was time to get help. He began counseling in November.
“I finally was like, okay, if I don’t get any help for my mental health, I’m either going to drink myself to death or I’m putting a gun in my mouth, one of the two,” said Marshall. “It was just headed that direction, something needed to change.”
Marshall called up Army OneSource, now Military OneSource, which provides a network of services to active and reserve personnel and their families, including therapy, and spoke with a representative who aided him in getting the help he needed. The representative highly recommended a therapist named Gary, working in Manchester. Marshall met with him and began Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, or EMDR.
“To this day, I have talked about it openly, even when I was still in the Guard, about going to therapy and doing that treatment stuff, I can’t explain how that shit works, but it works,” explained Marshall. “[If] anybody that is suffering from PTSD can find somebody that has been trained in EMDR, they should do it.”
Marshall continued EMDR therapy and counseling for a year and a half. In early 2014, he was finally cleared by a medical board for the blood clot in his leg. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2015, here he hatched the idea of taking on the Pacific Crest Trail from start to finish as his way of closing the book on his military career after discovering a website of a computer engineer who recorded every day of his journey. Starting in April 2015, Marshall would log onto the site and read the corresponding entry for that date from the hiker’s journey a year prior.
“I decided I was going to read his website every single morning when I got into my office for that day that he was on the trail,” said Marshall. “I was vicariously hiking, virtually hiking, the trail through his stuff the year before…and that’s when I was like, really okay, I can do this.”
Marshall set the date. After he hit his twenty years and retired from the Army, he decided he would begin his trek.
In February 2017, Marshall retired from the Army as a Major. Two months later he started his hike down in Campo, California. The journey took him over the Sierra Nevada mountain range, for 33 days of his trip he trudged through snow at differing elevations between 8,000 and 13,000 feet. The freezing mountains would soon turn to a fiery hellscape as he got closer to Bend, Oregon, as forest fires had engulfed the trail sporadically up across Pacific Northwest up until the border of Canada. Marshall was forced to turn around.
“I got to just south of Bend and everything in front of me was on fire,” recalled Marshall. “I guess this trip is over.”
Next year, Marshall tried again. He would not be on the trail for too long. After making it back to the Sierras, Marshall drank non-treated water from a creek, causing him to contract giardia, a tiny parasite that causes the diarrheal disease giardiasis. The next morning, he felt he had come down with the flu.
Marshall hiked two and a half more days while ill to reach Vermillion Valley Resort, a campground at Edison Lake. He hitched a ride with the owner of the property and traveled down to Fresno to head home. Marshall was on antibiotics for a week, and in recovery for three weeks, before he felt better. By the time he recovered, he was 160 pounds. As he put it, “I looked like I walked out of a POW camp.”
It would not be until 2021, after a brief two-week hike on the PCT and after climbing Mount Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states at 14,505 feet, with Kenyon in 2020, that Marshall would return with his best friend to conquer the PCT from start to finish. This time Marshall was ready. He had made all the preparations, he looked into the weather, he calculated the pace they would have to hike at and sent out their resupplies so they would be equipped as they got farther down the trail.
“After all those miles I had put on between ‘17 and ‘19, I had the trail dialed in,” said Marshall. “I told Will (Kenyon), this is exactly how we are going to do this, and I said, this will get us to the finish line.”
Marshall and Kenyon started out back down in California and steadily made great time, narrowly avoiding being stopped by forest fires that now engulfed the trail behind them. This time around the biggest thorn in the pair’s side was not a direct part of nature, it was Kenyon’s footwear. Kenyon was unable to find a pair of properly fitting hiking shoes, his feet were sore and ached the entire time to the point he would try a new pair of boots at every resupply they came across. He never found a pair that truly were comfortable, but, nevertheless, the pain in his feet never stopped him. For the first half of the hike, they averaged 16 miles per day, eventually hiking approximately 19 miles a day when the terrain was not as steep and more forgiving.
During their 154 days on the trail, the pair found themselves trapped in multiple windstorms, outwalking wildfires, climbing into the mountains, fording through rivers and creeks laden with their 30 pound rucksacks, fighting off deer attempting to steal their supplies and trying to stay ahead of a large group of hikers that they affectionately referred to as “the hoard”. Each day brought a new beautiful vista and with every step their confidence grew. As they neared Washington, the last state on their journey, they believed this time they were going to make it.
“If anything was gonna stop us, it was we just quit,” explained Marshall. “Once we got to Washington too, since that was the last state, and there really weren’t any fires affecting the trail directly at that point, I’m thinking alright, we’re gonna get this done.”
The final days of the hike as the pair approached the Canadian border were “gorgeous.” The weather was about 55 degrees, there were no clouds in the sky. The pair hiked about 20 miles and set up camp three miles from the border. As they steadily approached the final leg of their trek they encountered hikers traveling opposite of them, victorious and on their way back home to the lives they put on hold as they embarked on this journey. Some faces were familiar to Marshall and Kenyon, others they had never seen before.
“We ran into this couple, we hadn’t seen them since the Sierras, we hadn’t seen them in almost three months, in the beginning we were hiking around them for a long time,” said Marshall. “You’re like there you are, this is awesome, so we got held up quite a bit because we ended up talking to so many people.”
Some people were upset. The lives they left behind they would soon have to return to, for some it was an escape, all they had to do at the end of the day was setup their tent and go to sleep. Marshall didn’t dwell on it for too long. As more hikers filtered through, Marshall and Kenyon hatched a plan to wake up early at daybreak to finish the hike before everyone hit the trail during the day.
It took them about an hour to hike the last 3 miles to the Canadian border. The pair signed the logbook at the border and took photos to commemorate their journey. Finally, four years after first attempting to complete the hike from start to finish, Marshall would have his win.
“You feel accomplished, you did it, it’s amazing,” recalled Marshall. “No one can take this away from you.”
The pair turned around and headed back past the campsite they stayed at the night before to head off the trail. From first stepping foot on the trail in 2017 to finishing the journey from start to finish in 2021, Marshall hiked approximately 6,500 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. During this time, he did a lot of soul searching and found that hiking was able to ease his mind and help him come to terms with the trauma he had endured and bottled up.
“I found that hiking as a whole is my own version of therapy, I can use it almost as a walking meditation.” said Marshall. “When I’m walking or hiking like that, you got nothing but time to think about stuff and that really helps a lot, for my mental health hiking has been amazing.”