Eight shadows make their way over an icy slope guided by headlamps and instinct. As most Americans snuggle deeper under the covers in predawn slumber, this group climbs higher, pushing onward over rugged terrain. While their goal is to get to the top of Mount Rainier by sunrise, their purpose stretches far beyond reaching the summit. This team is working at a group pace. They take care of one another even though no words are spoken. They move as though they have known one another for years. This team of military veterans just met the night before. This is Veterans Expeditions in action.
Since 9/11, the US has experienced an unprecedented influx of injured service members and conventional systems cannot meet the increasing demand. Due to various mental and physical injuries sustained during service, veterans often experience increased stress, depression, feelings of loneliness and isolation, substance abuse, unemployment, domestic abuse and an overall poor quality of life. The Veterans Administration is overwhelmed, and other resources that aid in recovery are under-utilized, inadequate, and sometimes ineffective.
Upon returning home, veterans often struggle with issues such as depression, drug use, incarceration and homelessness. Over 22 veterans kill themselves each day and many others turn to substance abuse and violence to cope with the overwhelming difficulties faced after service. Through the struggle and the hurt, many are in the need of a hand up, a high five, someone to listen to their story, and a powerful experience outside with peers and their community.
That’s why we started Veterans Expeditions. Vets miss being a part of a team so tight, that no one gets left behind. While this bond is very hard to duplicate in civilian life, those that find these things thrive, excel, and achieve.
But, who am I to be an authority on the subject? My name is Nick Watson and I’m the Executive Director and Co-Founder of VetEx. I served five years as an Army Ranger over 20 years ago. When I left active duty, I immersed myself in the outdoors. I used nature as my medicine, my career, my everything. It was how I coped with the transition and every obstacle in my path. I found something that I was passionate about in my civilian life that was able to replace the adrenaline, excitement, and unity of being in Ranger Battalion. I no longer looked back; I looked forward. I worked job after job in the outdoors after gaining my degree in Recreation Management. I led kids and adults outside all over the country from the National Park Service, to wilderness therapy, to guiding high-end clients. For many years, I slept outside over 250-nights per year, leading groups, studying, learning, watching, observing, and honing my craft of outdoor leadership.
When we started VetEx in 2010, I was excited to share my vast knowledge and experience of the outdoors with these veterans, hoping nature could help them as much as it helped me. Along the way, I learned that to truly make a difference, each group of vets must be surrounded by experienced leaders, who are also veterans, and supported by a group of non-veterans. This is important because there is an instant report and respect that those who have served have for one another. Veterans feel that other vets understand where they are coming from. The non-veteran support comes from guides, experts in a given field, family, friends, and the general public. This integral piece ties us to our local communities of vets and non-vets where we live and operate our trips from. Veterans and non-veterans alike are able to see what we are doing and want to support us.
We saw this program as a way to allow military veterans to lead and participate in “nature assisted therapy”, and much like our military experience, we saw bonds form that lasted long after the end of each trip. We began to see the positive impact of being part of something bigger than ourselves again, especially when faced with the challenges of transitioning from military service to civilian life. With each new achievement, others recognized what we were doing at VetEx as different, innovative, and important. The benefits of a program that focused solely on military veterans became apparent as people realized we were not offering one-off experiences clouded by smoke, mirrors, and red tape; we were offering a place in our tight community.
National Geographic thought highly enough of our ability to build community within our own ranks that they recognized VetEx as 2014 Adventurers of the Year. This recognition by National Geographic put us on the map, made folks give us a second look, and got our foot in the door where doors were closed to us in the past. In a way, it was like a big welcome mat to the outdoor industry. There are millions of veterans getting off active duty, buying gear in massive amounts, and getting outside and the outdoor industry has begun to recognize the value of the veteran consumer.
Key players in the outdoor industry, including Osprey Packs, have also joined our team by providing financial, social media and gear support. Since its inception, VetEx has served over 2,000 veterans on 200 trips that include short snowshoes, multi-day river trips, ice-climbing outings, climbs up Mt. Rainier and a successful summit of Denali, North America’s highest peak. Through the community created by VetEx, some are finding a different way. These vets are making healthier choices, finding communities to fall back on, and becoming part of something bigger than themselves again. Many discover second service. Their first service was in uniform, their second service is serving their brothers and sisters in a positive way. In our case, by showing good leadership and mentoring their fellow veterans.
2016 has been our best year yet at Veterans Expeditions. This year alone, we got more than 500 veterans outside on a wide range of trips across the nation and we need your help to get more out on the trail next year.
Some highlights from 2016 include:
Through outdoor experiences of varying levels, VetEx creates community based in trust and comradery for all veterans regardless of age, ability level or service history. The bonds built at VetEx persist well beyond the rivers paddled, trails hiked or peaks climbed so veterans have a lasting support system they can rely on in times of trouble or struggle. VetEx also helps veterans realize they have not already done the most important thing in their life, which is to find that same passion they had in the military in their civilian lives. For me, that is serving other veterans. For others, it’s getting their MBA or becoming an engineer. And for many more, it’s the next trip, the next adventure, the next thing to train and prepare for. The next big trip can keep vets going until they figure it out.
We help men and women who have served to realize they can challenge themselves and push beyond what other people tell them about how their bodies and minds work after combat. Time outdoors working to achieve a common goal alongside their brothers and sisters in arms, helps veterans realize they have value so they can embrace the special role they play in society. Dedication to this mission is perhaps more important now than ever given the astounding numbers of men and women who have returned home and are still struggling to heal invisible scars and physical injuries.
We know the work we do is powerful and positively affects lives. We use the outdoors to create a trusting veteran community that not only exists during trips, but also extends beyond the outdoors to provide support to veterans in their home communities. This is our greatest achievement as an organization.
If you’d like to be part of our work, your tax-deductible donation to VetEx will provide hundreds of military veterans a chance to join our strong veteran community, a chance to be part of something powerful again, and a chance at second service. We have very little overhead to ensure your donation goes directly to getting our military veterans outside on a wide range of trips, outings, and expeditions.
Please remember that any gift – in any amount – will help us reach our fundraising goal and provide hundreds of military veterans a chance to become part of our growing VetEx community.
Thank you for supporting our veterans who have selflessly given of themselves for our great country.
Posted by Kami York-Feirn November 11, 2016 on a http://www.ospreypacks.com/stories/reclaiming-the-edge-when-veterans-climb/