By Joshua Shurley
In 1967, Tim Keenan was sent to Vietnam like so many young men of his generation. Drafted into the army, he served with the 4th Infantry Division and participated in several battles during his 12-month tour.
For Keenan and his compatriots, much of their time in Vietnam in between combat firefights was spent walking through the dense tropical forests of Southeast Asia. Walking amid the ever-present threat of enemy patrols, mines and booby traps.
Walking. Putting one foot in front of the other until the next objective was reached. Sometimes there would be combat. But always, it was eventually time to walk again.
When it comes to war in the popular imagination, many of us think of soldiers engaged in valiant acts. Excited GIs firing rifles at a determined enemy who are firing their rifles.
We may think of the damage done in battle. The grisly post-mortem scenes of destruction, void of life, resulting from the devastation of mortars and artillery rounds.
But for infantry grunts like Keenan, the simple act of walking summed it all up. The act of walking through the difficult terrain, on edge, waiting for what might come any second. He had come to hate and fear the jungle.
His tour eventually ended and a 21-year-old Keenan—one of the lucky ones—went home to Michigan to live out the rest of his life, one characterized by turmoil.
Unlike so many who find solace in nature, for several decades he could not shake his dread of the forest. After his retirement and raising three children, Keenan made a decision: At age 62, he would hike all 2,178 mountainous miles of the Appalachian Trail, which winds from Georgia all the way to Maine.
The purpose was to confront his crippling fear and anxiety associated with walking in the woods since the war, helped along the way by the healing powers of nature and his fellow hikers. He described it as a life-changing event that allowed him to deal with his experiences in ways that had seemed impossible until that point.
Since that time, Keenan has joined Veterans for Peace and served as president of the Northern Michigan chapter.
Five years later (in 2014), he decided to take his healing process a step further and return to the place where walking in the woods defined impending mortal danger. Along with his adult son (who was not much older than Keenan was when he was drafted) and two filmmakers, he traveled to Vietnam.
Remarkably, he found parallels between his experiences on the Appalachian Trail and his trip back to Vietnam—most notably in the kindness of people and the contrast between the intensity of war and the sheer beauty of the natural world.
Keenan’s 2016 book, The Good Hike, chronicles his journey on the trail, weaving in the beautiful towns and mountains of Appalachia with the jungle and battle zones in Vietnam, and how he ultimately came to peace with himself.
The 2015 documentary film Naneek chronicles Keenan’s return to Vietnam more than four decades later, as he met with former enemies, revisited old battlegrounds and confronted the past.
His story recounts how, through war, he lost himself at 20, but through the active work of building peace (both outer and inner) maybe—just maybe—he has begun to find himself. It is a story about trauma and healing, injury and forgiveness. As with each one of us, he remains a work in progress.
Keenan will give a talk and screen his short documentary film (followed by Q&A) on Jan. 24 at 6:30 p.m. at the Fresno Center for Nonviolence (1584 N. Van Ness Ave.). For more information, contact Veterans for Peace at 559-512-9469.
Dr. Joshua Shurley is an army veteran and former conflict researcher who now teaches political science at Clovis Community College. He sits on the board of the Fresno Center for Nonviolence and is an organizer with the Fresno chapter of Veterans for Peace. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.