By Kim Constantinesco
Serving in the U.S. Armed Forces undoubtedly requires sacrifice, loyalty, and courage among many other endearing qualities, but it’s resilience that best helps servicemen and servicewomen carry on and accept a new reality once their military careers are over.
To help ease the military-to-post military transition, Veteran Expeditions aims to build a community among veterans using various outdoor trips.
Some of the trips from 2014 have included ice climbing in Ouray, Colorado, climbing up Mt. Hood and Mt. Rainer, overnight snowshoe trips, mountain bike races, and float trips. That’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the organization offers.
“Veterans get to meet each other in a laid back kind of way in the outdoors,” Veteran Expeditions co-founder Nick Watson said. “You know that everyone on those trips is a vet, and they’ve signed on the dotted line. A lot of folks who have just come out of the military lose that sense of community, lose that sense of belonging, and lose that mindset of being part of something that’s bigger than themselves.”
A Time In Need
Founded in 2010 by Watson, 40, and Stacey Bare, 35, the Colorado-based non-profit was started because the two men, who are veterans themselves, saw immense need and value for a program like this.
“For me and for a lot of other folks, just the act of leaving the military and transitioning into the civilian life again is one of the most difficult things that I’ve ever done,” Watson said. “A lot of veterans share that same story because a lot of folks that are using our program grow up in the military.”
“My brothers in Ranger Battalion are the folks I grew up with, trained with, and then got to go all over the world with,” Watson continued. “That was an extremely powerful experience. It’s also very orchestrated. You always know what you’re doing. It’s an experience that once you leave it and then try to go back to the world you started at when you were young, you don’t really know that world well. It’s extremely difficult. The way you see the world is different. That transition is a big focus in a lot of our expeditions.”
Watson was an Army Ranger for six years in the 3rd Ranger Battalion, and served all over the world in the pre-9/11 era. After his military career ended, he went on to lead wilderness expeditions. Bare was just a few years removed from serving in Iraq when the two met, and had a strong entrepreneurial background with a large network, so he and Watson joined forces and made a $20,000 check go a long ways to getting Veteran Expeditions started.
In their first year of operation, Watson and Bare brought 18 veterans out on two trips. While there’s plenty of fun, adventure, and camaraderie to be had on the trips, the real benefits waft to the weeks, months, and even years afterward.
“Once they’ve been on a trip with us, when things aren’t going well for them, they know they have a network of support that they can call up in their hour of need,” Watson said. “They look out for one another on a really big level.”
When Watson got out of the military in the late 90’s, he didn’t have any kind of programming to help him figure out what was next in his life. He had to figure it out on his own, and now he has a lot to share with other veterans to help make their transitions easier.
Combating The Stats
It’s no secret that depression and PTSD run rampant among active-duty soldiers and veterans alike. The suicide rate climbed to 29.7 deaths per 100,000 in 2012 for full-time soldiers (For comparison, the civilian suicide rate in 2010 was 12.1 deaths per 100,000).
The Veterans Affairs Department reports that 22 veterans commit suicide every day. That adds up to over 8,000 veterans taking their own lives in a given year.
“Getting outside regularly with your brothers and sisters really seems to be the right medicine to really make change in people’s lives, Watson said. “We see it time and time again. We see people come on our trips and start to make better life choices.”
So what is it exactly that Veteran Expeditions provides the helps buffer these mental health issues?
“I think what it really does is it gives folks some space to get comfortable with themselves again,” Watson said. “I think there are a lot of people out there in the world whether they’re a veteran or otherwise, they live with these things and they do a good job of living with these things. It’s just because they’ve figured out a new way of living and they’ve figured out a new way of dealing with situations. We believe this is a huge stepping point to setting people up to head in the right direction. The community aspect is just so important because folks don’t feel alone. That’s the main issue with veterans in crisis. They feel alone and there’s no one at work that they can call during a bad hour or a bad day.”
Connecting The Past To The Present
On September 11, 2011, able-bodied and disabled veterans made the trek to the Grand Tetons to help remember the attacks from ten years earlier. The group made it to the summit at the exact same time that the first plan hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The dedicated training that everyone put into that trip enabled the climb to run smoothly.
“That trip set a bar for the type of trips that we do, the relationships that we make, and the impact that we have when we’re on a trip,” Watson said. “There were a few veterans working on other guided trips that we saw on the mountain that day. They were so impressed by what they saw from us that they started their own 9/11 trips with their own companies.”
This year, a group of eight will summit Mount McKinley (aka Denali), which is 20,237 feet above sea level.
There aren’t too many limits within Veteran Expeditions. Some veterans have even expressed interest in doing climbing trips in Afghanistan.
One of the main goals for this all volunteer organization, however, is to expand their outreach.
“We’d like to grow leaders, and leadership is our biggest project,” Watson said. “We want to give folks a high level of training so they can become leaders for us and for other programs.”
As time in the outdoors and camaraderie provide a shot in the arm to veterans who participate, Veteran Expeditions will maintain their attack and keep putting on these trips, which immunize against confusion, sadness, and isolation; and you can bet that they will not rest until the job is done.