“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.”
There is no shortage of opinion and research surrounding veterans and their coping mechanisms. So how does organizing a mountain bike excursion on the outskirts of Salida, Colorado, help veterans in that regard?
Veterans Expeditions (VetEx) is an outdoor adventure nonprofit organization. Led by veterans for veterans, VetEx empowers its members to conquer the outdoors, which in turn provides a therapy of mind, body, and purpose for all involved.
Through VetEx, veterans in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Oregon, Virginia, and New York can participate in high adventure sports: whitewater rafting, snowshoeing, rock climbing, ice climbing, mountain biking, spelunking, and mountaineering.
There’s a lot of depth to what Executive Director Nick Watson has to say about veterans’ coping mechanisms. A former Army Ranger, he served alongside the men of the 3d Ranger Battalion for five years. His own journey and transition back to civilian life was an education in itself, one that he uses to help other veterans along their post-military path.
Note Watson’s observation that veterans’ self-perception is something that “other people tell them.” With VetEx, veterans can regain control of their self-image.
From its inception in 2010, VetEx has consisted of three primary groups: the veterans charged with leading outdoor excursions, the veterans who join the excursions, and the non-veterans invited to help with the effort.
The non-veteran support is crucial, and it includes guides, outdoor experts, and gear companies (including merchants and manufacturers). “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,” said Watson.
This was especially apparent as riders (six in all, including Watson) showed up at SubCulture Cyclery in Salida for an early-April mountain bike trek along the Little Rainbow Trail. SubCulture Cyclery was our non-veteran support for the ride, and they were quite generous, providing space at the shop to meet as well as bicycles for those who needed them.
Vicente Vitela, a Navy veteran who served as a sonar technician and diver in the ‘80s, arrived at the shop first. This was his second VetEx excursion. “These types of programs are vital to my mental and physical well-being. It’s hard to explain, but I look at them like therapy,” said Vicente.
SubCulture loaned Vicente a sweet trail bike for the ride. That would ordinarily run upwards of $85 for a one-day rental, but the shop lets all veterans riding with VetEx receive rentals free of charge.
The non-veteran network not only provides material support to various expeditions; it also helps VetEx connect veterans with jobs in the outdoor industry as they figure out their next step.
“If you’re just coming off active duty and you’re maybe not knowing what the next step is, being a raft guide for the summer is not a bad deal to get your feet wet, get your head back on your shoulders, become a civilian again,” said Watson. “You’ll get back into the civilian world real quick because you’ll be interacting with the public on a massive level.”
The push from the shop in downtown Salida (elevation 7,083 feet) to the Little Rainbow trailhead isn’t especially long, but for those who are not acclimated to the rigor of Colorado’s high-altitude, it is a gut-check. One rider drove five hours from Moab, Utah (elevation 4,026 feet), to ride with us.
We hadn’t been riding more than 20 minutes before the rider from Moab, thoroughly winded (he lives over 3,000 feet lower than Salida), decided to drop from the group. It was tough to see him go, being the easy conversationalist that he is, but it was likely wise. Though this trek was billed as a “beginner” ride, mountain biking is physically taxing and requires skill, regardless of the trail rating. The rider knew best what his limitations were, and his decision to withdraw may have ensured the ride was uneventful.
VetEx has been operating since 2010 without any major accidents. Given Watson’s years of outdoor leadership experience, especially as a mountaineer, not cajoling a rider too far beyond his comfort zone seems like the same kind of precaution that guides mountaineers off the mountain in a dangerous situation despite the years and tens of thousands of dollars they have invested in the climb.
“It’s all about taking care of the individual first, the activity second,” said Watson. Safety is paramount.
“For folk wanting to lead trips, we do require a Wilderness First Aid (WFA) certification,” said Josh Oakley, president of VetEx. “This ensures we have qualified medical support on all our trips.”
We stopped for a water break on the Little Rainbow Trail when Watson shared something wonderful: the History Channel filmed a VetEx ice climbing venture just the day prior.
“They want to tell a story about a [specific] vet. They want to tell a story about the field director and how he helps other vets climb, but what I wanted them to see is that there’s hundreds and thousands of other stories in our organization,” said Watson. “If they want to come out with us, they can highlight this person, that person, this trip or that trip. They’re looking for content and I think they saw the content.”
VetEx needs good content and exposure, because although non-veteran support is growing, funding still seems to be an issue for the organization. Watson explained how large nonprofits like Wounded Warrior Project and Team Rubicon[RA1] (an organization that deploys veterans in support or disaster relief efforts worldwide) have a huge funding advantage.
“I don’t begrudge Team Rubicon, I think they’re an excellent organization. They need money for what they’re doing,” said Watson. “When you start looking at dollars – and quite honestly when you’re applying for grants, they don’t look at the organization, they don’t look at what we’re doing, they look at dollars – we don’t get a lot of respect as a $100,000 a year organization.”
“Those organizations in a sense make it harder for us to do what we do because they’re getting all the grants. A $20,000 grant to us is just massive,” said Watson, but to the bigger nonprofits, that’s pocket change.
VetEx could not operate without a strong base of group leaders. “Typically our leaders are borne out through participation,” said Oakley via email. To become a leader, “Come out on trips and get to know the organization.”
The veteran who is tapped to be an outdoor leader realizes the same grave responsibility they shouldered as leaders in the military: to get all their people back home in one piece. Activities sponsored by VetEx are all high consequence endeavors. Like leading troops on a combat patrol, leading people in these activities is no small undertaking. Excursion leaders must place their personal priorities aside, creating purpose in a community.
Not everyone becomes a trip leader, but there is a place for everyone who has something to offer. “We have folks serving in various capacities from trip leaders, to board members, to helping out with fundraising,” said Oakley.
Oakley’s wife learned about VetEx through Facebook when they were still engaged. As an introvert, Oakley needed a “helpful nudge” from his wife to get involved. His first trip was in Ouray, Colorado, to go ice climbing.
“Then after about a year or so going out on trips, I was approached by Nick Watson, our Executive Director, about joining the board of directors for the organization,” said Oakley. “I was flattered… I decided it would be a great opportunity to give back and help shape the organization.”
Oakley has served as president since late 2016.
The final part of the equation that makes VetEx effective is the veterans they serve.
Veterans are not a population apart. We tend to apply flattering terms like “hero” to veterans. We also tend to extend that prejudice – positive though it may be – toward veterans’ ability to overcome all obstacles. Veterans have the same basic needs and desires as everyone else, including a community that provides a place where one can achieve purpose, where one can contribute.
VetEx has created such a community, and it benefits people like Courtney Blodgett, an Army veteran who rolled-up to the Salida ride on a bike more appropriate for an urban ride through Denver than a mountain bike trail.
Blodgett embodies the mission of VetEx. No one ever approached her to say, “Your bike’s a bit dated, not sure you’ve got the requisite skill for today’s ride.” Veterans come as they are and are accepted as such. They voluntarily push themselves beyond their comfort zone to discover new possibilities. Blodgett never complained that the trail was too technical or aerobic, and she squeezed every ounce of capability out of her bike, tailing guys on full-suspension trail bikes.
Blodgett’s performance showed the grit she relied on to get through life as a veteran. Once a self-described “couch surfer,” she was all but homeless for about three years after leaving the military. She now holds two masters degrees in education and serves as the executive assistant to the president of the Community College of Denver.
“VetEx touches lives in various ways,” said Oakley. “Whether this is overcoming some trauma, lost community, learning a new skill, or giving back to the veteran community—VetEx is serving a different purpose in a unique way for every individual.”
VetEx has a lot going for them besides bike rides. Take the VetEx female Mt. Denali team. Five women are set to climb Mt. Denali, Alaska, in June. “They’re due to go on the glacier June 1st. But they end up in Alaska right on Memorial Day, so they’ll be on the mountain most of June,” said Watson.
“We started with 12, we’re down to 5,” said Watson. That’s a significant attrition rate. Some former team members volunteered to leave; others were asked to leave. “…it’s a hard deal, and it’s not safe for people to be up there that don’t belong up there.” Personality also plays a major role in safety and success. Watson has seen other[RA2] mountaineer teams implode on the mountain, to the point where they don’t ever speak again. There is no room for egos like that. Everything, from equipment and training to interpersonal compatibility, matters. On a big mountain like Denali, these things are life or death.
It is a supremely challenging undertaking. Denali offers more elevation gain than Everest, and ranks as one of the world’s most challenging climbs. Watson will be supporting them from the base camp.
“The women that are on that team, it’s their expedition and they’re going to go on their own,” said Watson. “I’m running all the logistics and making sure that they get on the plane with the best chance they have of having success.”
The Denali expedition has been in the works for 3 years. “The climbing part is the easy part,” said Watson. The waiting and training are the hardest.
“We’re not going to climb Everest, because you just hire a fucking Sherpa and the Sherpa takes you to the top. We’re creating high-functioning teams in the backcountry to go and tackle a task,” said Watson. “When these women come off this expedition, they’re going to be ready to run some women’s specific trips.”
In recognition of the group’s accomplishments, Watson and co-founder Stacy Bare were chosen as National Geographic’s 2014 Adventurers of the Year, an achievement that has placed VetEx on the map as a premier outdoor organization and veterans group.
Despite the lofty achievements, the leadership at VetEx are keeping the mission in perspective by prioritizing support to the community of veterans. Along with myriad responsibilities of planning the Denali summit expedition, organizing fundraisers, and personally leading group rides, Watson is designing a bike redistribution initiative.
“My other bike, I paid it forward. I gave it to a vet who needed it. People have bikes in their garage or laying around. I wanted to give it to somebody who I knew it would be a hand-up,” said Watson. “I know here in Colorado all these folks may have made some money and they bought these bikes and they’re sitting around. And if they can donate that to a vet in need, the donor would get something out of it, and the vet would get something out of it. If they’re sitting around, hey, we’ve got a place for it.”
“We want to improve people’s lives and our mission is to make people stronger, physically, mentally, and spiritually—whatever that is for each person. The way we do that is through outdoor challenges and community,” said Oakley.
There’s no telling how far this group can go, but they’re keeping it homegrown and veteran-focused. This is how a bike ride becomes a coping mechanism. This is how veterans can define themselves after combat.