DURHAM — With every step along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, the pain in Staff Sgt. Adam Williams' ankle and the ache in Sgt. Austin Duke's knee remind the two Marines how lucky they are.
They still have knees and ankles, unlike many of those they've served with who have been injured by homemade explosives in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"There are Marines and other service members who wish they had pains in their knees," said Williams, one of 18 Camp Lejeune-based Marines who are relay-hiking the Mountains-to-Sea Trail to raise awareness and financial support for the Semper Fi Fund.
The nonprofit was founded in 2004; more than 95 percent of the money the Semper Fi Fund receives goes to help Marines, sailors and members of other service branches injured while supporting the Marines.
Calling themselves the Fortunate Sons, the group of hikers began their march Oct. 2 at the western end of the trail, at Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Marines hike in groups of three for a week at a time, accompanied much of the way by trail guide Scott Ward. Covering 20 to 30 miles in each 10-hour hiking day, the group hopes to finish the hike at Jockey's Ridge State Park by Nov. 13, two days after Veterans Day.
"I'm really impressed by their dedication," said Ward, who has through-hiked the trail four times and written a guidebook for it.
The Marines have hiked through pain, rain, cold and heat, never taking a day off. In addition to the challenges of weather and terrain, hikers along the still-new 1,000-mile MST must pay close attention just to find the white blazes that mark the path.
By comparison, Ward said, "The Appalachian Trail is a super-highway. This one is like, 'Oh, my God. Where's the trail?' "
In northern Durham County, where the hikers picked up the trail Friday morning, it follows rural roads before crossing a narrow section of the Eno River and heading into the woods around Falls Lake. Plodding along the pavement or shuffling through the colorful maple and oak leaves on the forest floor, Williams, 26, and Duke, 22, chat to pass the time.
"We talk about what snacks we're going to eat next, when we're scheduled to take our next dose of ibuprofen, and about our personal lives," Williams said.
All the Fortunate Sons are combat veterans, and some are Purple Heart recipients, including one Marine who lost much of his hearing when exposed to repeated blasts of improvised explosive devices.
Those who haven't been injured, Williams said, all know Marines who have.
"This is an emotional cause for us," he said.
Along the way, hikers have stayed in shelters where they exist and camped in churchyards and simple campgrounds. Coming through the town of Walnut Cove north of Winston-Salem earlier this week, the team was escorted in by a fire truck.
For Williams and Duke, the trek ends today, at whatever time they reach the Shinleaf camping area in the Falls Lake State Recreation Area. A new team will begin its journey from there Sunday morning.