'The Good Hike' - Vietnam Veteran Takes on the Appalachian Trail

TRAVERSE CITY -- Tim Keenan finally made it home; he sat reunited with his hometown friends at their favorite Lake Michigan beach. But Keenan realized even though he had survived Vietnam to get there, he was gone.

The happy-go-lucky 20-year-old who left Grand Rapids to fight in Vietnam from 1967-1968 had been replaced by someone else -- a hard-ass grunt wired for death and hate, an alien to the soft, sunny moments of his past.

"If the choice came between a dog and a human life, the dog lives," Keenan recalled of his dehumanized days in the jungle battle zones around Dak To, as a soldier in the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry. "War turns you into animals. It just happens. Seeing all that blood, it robs you, changes you forever.

"I have no idea what kind of person I could have been."

Finding out -- dealing with -- the person he has become has been a half-century pursuit for Keenan, 70. The retired corrections manager and former volleyball coach heads up Northern Michigan Veterans for Peace, and has since made no secret of his battle with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"You never know what's going to trigger it," Keenan said, but for many years he could count on the woods to draw the hammer back. The fear -- of being pursued, killed or captured by an unseen enemy -- would close in, even on walks with his kids through their resident northern Michigan forests. Keenan's A Company, 3rd Battalion, 12th Infantry made more "enemy contact" in Vietnam from Nov. 1967 to Feb. 1968 than any other company, and much of the fighting was in the thick southern Vietnamese jungle.

"I was leery about being in the woods at all," Keenan said. "Even on walks with the kids, I was edgy, uncomfortable."

So he decided to walk 2,178 wooded miles, from Georgia into Maine, as a 62-year-old retiree.

His recently published book about the experience, "The Good Hike", follows Keenan's thru-hike along the Appalachian Trail.

"A friend of mine, 'Peach' was her trail name, made me promise to give it 30 days before I quit," Keenan said. "I probably would've quit if it wasn't for that promise."

Keenan took on the seven-month journey as a way to deal with his fear of the woods and get perspective on his wartime experience.

"That's what you do on the trail, you walk and think. You think all day," Keenan said.

He completed the hike in September 2009, but dragged his feet on putting the book together, he said.

One, he isn't "much of a writer," he said.

Two, he was worried the hatred and blame he assigned to his battalion commander's tactical mistakes would put people off. Third, there were some dates and memories he didn't want to revisit, like Nov. 17, 1967, when his company was ordered to take Hill 1338 and were cut down, exposed at the summit.

The night before he set out on the AT, Keenan suffered flashbacks of the gruesome deaths, horror and fear he experienced 41 years ago.

But he promised he would write a book for his kids, and it evolved from there, he said.

"I just figured I'd do it for other vets ... or other people to read before they sign that dotted line. For their parents, 'Say goodbye to your sons and daughters because they're not going to be the same people when they get back,'" Keenan said, adding he also hoped it inspires people to take hikes of their own.

"I want people to feel the intensity of war against the beauty of the Appalachian Trail. Hiking that was such a life-changing event ... I'd encourage people, if you're not doing anything, to do it."

Keenan hit the trail again in 2014 when he returned to Vietnam with his son, Jake. The film about their experience, "Naneek" -- Keenan spelled backwards -- currently is making the rounds at film festivals, including at Traverse City's where it won the 2015 audience award for best documentary short.

Beyond retracing his steps at battle sites and making peace with his former enemy, Keenan found some surprising parallels between the AT and his Vietnam trip.

"It was the kindness of the people. Here, you look people in the eye, and they're like, 'What are you doing?' But the trail angels ... people would stop for you, pick you up -- at 62, I was hitchhiking all the time -- take you to their home, get you a home-cooked meal," Keenan said. "In Vietnam, people were so kind to me, they made me feel special."

Keenan spoke of the cluster bombs that still litter the region's countryside and meeting a North Vietnamese Army soldier his same age whose family was from My Lai, where U.S. forces killed and attempted to cover up the mass murder of between 347 and 504 unarmed villagers. Keenan said he apologized on behalf of his country, and the man told him -- through a translator -- "That's what happens in a war," Keenan said.

"It was just a healing thing. It's all about forgiveness," Keenan said.

Keenan will give a short talk and sign books at Right Brain Brewery on Dec. 18 from 5-7 p.m. and at Horizon Books on Dec. 20 from 6-8 p.m. Profits from the book will go toward an endowment for the John Lewis Veterans for Peace scholarship for needy veterans and their children. ___

(c)2016 The Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Mich.)

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This article is written by Allison Batdorff from The Record-Eagle, Traverse City, Mich. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.

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