War Veterans Find Healing in the Wilderness

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War Veterans Find Healing in the WildernessNine veterans find healing through one-week course  
by Conrad Mulcahy, The New York Times

The nine men who climbed to the summit of the Colorado mountain were combat veterans who had fought in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam.

Several knew the pain of bullets tearing through flesh. Others couldn't gather memories blown away by an explosion. Some had seen combat so close they killed with their knives.

They were a wary group of strangers, guarded and slow to trust, who had arrived at the Outward Bound Wilderness school in Leadville, Colo., a few days before, wondering how a one-week course in the wilderness could help them heal.

But on the fourth day of their five-day journey in mid-July, after more than three hours of tough climbing up steep, moss-covered scree fields and beyond the tree line, these hard military men, ranging in age from 23 to 52, mourned in silence, 13,000 feet above sea level on the summit of Virginia Peak. Stripped of life's routines, they stood under an iron-gray early morning sky and finally allowed the tears to fall for friends who would never see this place…

     

"Look around this countryside: You guys deserve this," said Bob O'Rourke, a 62-year-old retired Marine and one of the instructors for the Outward Bound course. "Don't forget this moment," said O'Rourke, a Vietnam veteran, choking back tears of his own. The men with him were silent as they looked out across vast granite bowls speckled with old mine entrances among the evergreens. The imposing silhouette of Huron Peak stared back from the southwest.

All Outward Bound courses — whether for people seeking wilderness experience, for troubled teenagers seeking a new course in life, or for adult professionals taking a moment to reflect on the road they've taken — follow a carefully designed arc. Strangers come together, they are presented with activities that challenge them mentally and physically, and, ideally, their shared experience creates a strong bond among the members.

The five-day veterans' course, however, sought to be much more. These men may have left the war, but it never left them. This program was designed to be a part of their continuing therapy, which for some has lasted as long as five years. Physical injuries were common in this group, and they eagerly compared the bands of scar tissue, shiny and too smooth, that crisscrossed their bodies. But the specter of emotional trauma loomed just beyond most conversations.

By being pushed to their physical and emotional limits in the company of military men who had seen it all before, however, the veterans learned how to confront emotional injuries like post-traumatic stress disorder in a way that traditional group therapy cannot hope to replicate.

O'Rourke, who received two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, has participated in Outward Bound courses before and is a true believer. His first Outward Bound experience, five years ago, was not specifically designed for veterans, but it helped him look beyond his Vietnam experience.

It was in that spirit, after conquering the summit together, that the veterans held an impromptu memorial service on the mountaintop. One by one, they chose small rocks from the ground and gently piled them on a larger boulder. The solemn tempo of their procession was set by the crunching of boots on the ground and the clacking of stone on stone. Some spoke the names of dead comrades into the wind. Others remained silent, letting the tears on their faces speak for them.

Kyle Stozek, a 27-year-old former soldier in Afghanistan, spoke to the struggles faced by the men who were there on the summit.

"I think if there's one message I could get across to the public, it'd be to not give up on us," he said as the group walked through the mountain sunshine to the trailhead.

The veterans' introspection was nonexistent when the journey began. After arriving at the Outward Bound site, a collection of rustic but sturdy buildings tucked into a wooded corner of the old Leadville mining district, the veterans were taken outside and issued their gear. It was bright and hot, and the air was thin. People tried awkwardly to learn one another's names.

They were soon restless for activity.

Eventually, their patience was rewarded. The first challenge was a well-known standby for Outward Bound: the high ropes course. After a brief safety lesson, they were asked to navigate a path of beams, ropes and cables suspended 30 feet to 40 feet off of the ground.

The ropes course quickly brought out a time-honored military tradition: cross-branch rivalry. If a soldier hesitated as he moved from rope to rope, the Marines gave him a hard time. When the Marines had trouble, the soldiers happily reminded them how easy they'd found the course. "Boot mistake," they called out to each other, using the slang for a brand new recruit as they shook their heads in mock disgust. They were testing boundaries, trying to find the line between motivation and insult.

The following day the men and their gear were jammed into a van and driven farther into the countryside for a day of rock climbing. Well before they traded asphalt for pockmarked dirt trails, some of the men started swapping war stories, from driving tanks across Kuwait to street battles in Fallujah. Others rolled their eyes. Already they had grown tired of the constant talk of war. At one point, Matt Payton, aka Doc, 24, a former Navy corpsman who served in Iraq and the lone sailor in the group, pressed for the conversation to be about "anything but the military," a worn out look suddenly darkening his youthful face.

With war stories off limits, the men again turned to one another for material. Their humor was rough and profane, locker room stuff but affectionate in a way. Throughout the sun-drenched afternoon they joked constantly.

The instructor tried to teach climbing technique, but the ropes and the harnesses never really captured the group's attention. Only two or three men could climb at any one time. And even though holding the safety line for another man meant holding his life in your hands, the group seemed unfocused. The only time the men snapped to attention was when two military helicopters buzzed past — the sound of the rotor blades was all too familiar.

After several hours, a fierce storm barreled down the valley. Within minutes, the men were soaked, and the rocks were too slick to hang on to. Climbing was called off, and the group decided to break for lunch.

Standing in the rainy lee of a rock face, the first signs of a bond were apparent. The men were hungry and wet, and still they looked after one another. Before one could ask for it, another man would hand him a chunk of sausage and a slab of cheese. "Got a blade?" someone asked. "Right here," and a knife came handle first across the circle.

The rain never let up enough for climbing again, and the instructors cut their losses. The group was driven to a trailhead while the storm continued to pound the woods. At this higher elevation, some 11,000 feet, the rain mixed with hail.

When the weather finally broke, each man shouldered his pack, stuffed with 70 pounds of dehydrated food, clothing, stoves and the tarps that would be their only shelter. Thus laden, they began hiking for the first night's campsite, almost two miles away.

The night grew colder, and another storm came with the dusk. Some of the men ate a hurried meal, while others tried unsuccessfully to stay dry under the canvas shelters. David Sweet, the course director, later called it some of the worst rain he'd seen.

The next morning was clear, and after bagels and hot chocolate, it was another short hike to the next campsite. On the topographical map the route looked easy. The only challenge was a thin blue line labeled "Clear Creek."

Outward Bound has rules, and one is that the group must remain together at times like this. Adrian Maldonado Jr., a 26-year-old former Marine who participated in the veterans' program twice before this year, after two tours in Iraq, eagerly waded into the stream ahead of the others. Sweet called out to him to stop. He didn't hear, or chose not to, and kept going. Voices rose, and a heated argument broke out.

Sweet, who is not a veteran, quickly became a lightning rod for simmering frustrations.

Standing toe to toe with Sweet in the cold mountain stream, Maldonado barked that if he wanted someone "to tell me what to wear, what to do, where to go, what to say," he would have stayed in the Marines. After 45 minutes of arguing, Maldonado threatened to walk off of the course. Immediately, three other veterans rose to his defense. "If he goes, I go," they repeated.

Spare in his gestures, Maldonado's level of frustration was obvious as he folded his arms impatiently and clenched his jaw between bursts of speech. But the two Vietnam veterans knew what to say to draw the heat out of the argument. They spoke bluntly but also listened and gave him enough space to come around on his own. The resolution was tenuous, but the center held and the group waded through the knee-deep water before trudging on to that night's camp, wet and quiet.

Looking back on the incident later, the other Vietnam veteran, Bob Dawes, 59, a former Army Ranger and O'Rourke's co-instructor, felt that it was an important, albeit precarious part of this trip.

Most of these men suffered life-threatening injuries in combat, he pointed out. And then there are the emotional scars. Now, they're stuck trying to find their place in a civilian world that doesn't always understand what it means to come out alive from the white-hot forge of combat.

"They gave more for their country than what they were asked to give, and they just want some respect," Dawes said. They may have understood Sweet's rules, but they also needed him to know that they were not like any other Outward Bound group he'd ever seen.

It was a lesson for everyone — one of many on this five-day journey.

Kyle Stozek had arrived at Outward Bound ready for a week of camping and spending time with other veterans, but also preparing to return to war.

Stozek nearly died of a gunshot wound in the abdomen in Afghanistan in 2001. His injuries forced him to leave the Army, and he seemed adrift without its structure. He was considering a job with a private security company in Iraq, resigned to the idea that he would die violently. While Stozek has spent the last few years in marketing and consulting jobs, they never brought him the satisfaction or sense of duty that his time in the Army did. At the same time, he acknowledged that this sense of fulfillment came at a steep price. He distanced himself from the people who cared most for him instead of sharing his complicated feelings and experiences with them.

But after the fierce emotion he felt on the summit, where the safety of being with fellow veterans allowed him to cry for the first time in years, he seemed reborn. "I think now it's time to get back to learning what love is and what I want my life to be about," he said, smiling broadly on the last day of the course. "This trip really helped me learn that."


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