Brittney Burns – Staff Writer

The 2017 class of Warrior Hikers stopped in Franklin on Tuesday and were treated to a pizza dinner at the American Legion Post 108. In its fifth year, the community meal was sponsored by the legion and the VFW 7339 and welcomes the group of veterans hiking the Appalachian Trail to town.

“I can not thank you enough for this welcome,” said Sylvia King, a career veteran serving in the United States Army. “My husband and I have two children who are also in the military and we have always told them how important support like this and communities like you all are. Sometimes it’s hard to keep taking the next step when you are out on the trail, but it’s people like you, and days like this that keeps us going. We will never forget you, and we will never forget this town. Thank you.”

The Warrior Hikers left out of Springer Mountain, Ga., last week and made it into Franklin just ahead of Monday night’s storms. This year’s class makes the fifth class of hikers to stop in Franklin since the Warrior Hike was first established. The 2017 class of hikers includes veterans from the Army, Navy and Marines and for the first time in the hike’s history, three of the warrior hikers are considered career service members with 20 or more years serving in the military.

Another first for the warrior hikers, a husband and wife pair, Justin and Manuela Jay, both served five years in the United States Army and were deployed to Afghanistan. The couple both served in health services for the military and are taking on the Appalachian Trail together.

Support from their families is crucial for the warrior hikers, who hail from six different states across the country. In the past, husbands have been selected to participate in the warrior hike and to show their support and their wives have hiked alongside them. This year, for the first time, Sylvia King was selected as a warrior hiker and her husband, Steve, who is also a veteran, made the decision to support her journey and take each step with her.

This year’s warrior hike is the second time a four-legged friend has made the journey with the veterans, and Freedom was given a warm welcome at the legion on Tuesday night, and was even outfitted with his own quilted scarf to bring comfort during the hike.

The Smoky Mountain Quilters Guild presented each of the hikers with a Quilt of Valor, something that has been done consistently for the last five years. The guild signed each quilt and will ship them home for the veterans.

Over the last five years, Macon County Commissioners have welcomed the hikers to town and have taken time to dine with them and get to know their stories. Commissioners Ronnie Beale and Gary Shields presented the 2017 class of hikers with a commemorative pen that Beale joked could be useful on the trail for everything from writing letters home to helping start a fire if times got tough.

“We want to welcome you to Macon County and can’t thank you enough for what you are doing now and for the service you have given our country,” said Beale. “We are eternally grateful for you. We also want to say welcome home. Here in Macon County, we love our veterans, and we love you and you will always be home whenever you are here.”