My desire to participate with Huts for Vets grew less out of a desire to connect with nature, but an awareness I needed a new challenge in my life. Not too long ago, I learned about an amazing female Marine veteran, Kirstie Ennis. Her story of resilience after enduring a helicopter crash in Afghanistan and undergoing multiple surgeries including a below the knee and above the knee amputation inspired me to question why I retreated back to my own comfort zone. I could not recall any significant challenge I set before myself other than to complete a Spartan race in 2014. I knew in my heart if she could literally and figuratively climb mountains after enduring her amputation surgeries, I could find the motivation to push through what amounted to a marathon of hiking and walking over a period of four days.
The timing of the trip also served me well. I live in Gilbert, Arizona and from June 24th to July 6th, my community permits local residents to use fireworks. Although the idea is for them to use ground-based fireworks and sparklers, many people continue to shoot fireworks that explode in the air. I encountered mortar attacks at a small base, Camp Blue Diamond, in Iraq from August 2004 to February 2005. Currently, fireworks with report in close proximity to my home (around a mile or less) still remind me of mortar attacks from that deployment.
After being selected as a participant, my mission included upgrading my physical fitness routine, picking up needed supplies, and reading the packet Founder and Executive Director of Huts For Vets, Paul Andersen, sent to each of us for our literature discussions. Our meals, transportation needs, and shelter accommodations were covered in full, but I think it is important to share everyone’s individual cost varies greatly based on what hiking clothing and gear one already possesses and/or is willing to borrow from others. Those details are not to be overlooked in the planning process. Our team, in particular, was dealing with triple digit temperatures days prior to our Aspen flight; the night before our flight, my weather check indicated Aspen would be 88 degrees when we landed. With such a temperature difference, I brought more warming layers than someone who lives in a cooler climate might bring along for summer clothing.
People close to me–and readers who follow my blog, shewearsdogtags.com–know there are certain triggers related to my first deployment. I am not as shy to talk about those matters as I once was, and of equal importance, I did not realize some things were issues when I was still on active duty in the Marine Corps. The past few years, thanks to lessons learned in my graduate program at Arizona State University and some close colleagues there, I began unpacking my service experiences. This year’s journey with Huts for Vets is a continuation of that process. During this trip, I discovered Huts for Vets focuses on empowerment, nourishment, and companionship in its offering of wilderness therapy to veterans like me.
One of the best things to encounter upfront in this experience was the sense none of us were “broken” in the eyes of Paul and the rest of the HFV team. A common problem veterans encounter in media representation is the depiction of the broken veteran, and this idea is largely focused on war veterans. Trauma is not a dirty word in the HFV realm. The team embraced us and added us to their large family without hesitation. From the warm greeting at the airport to a relaxing picnic and walking tour around Aspen before starting our evening at the newly established teepee base camp, everyone greeted us sincerely and ensured we were empowered to maximize the effects of our time in nature away from technological distractions.
No details were overlooked. The team had oxygen, trekking poles, a large supply of potable water, and even a steripen so water collected from local streams could be sterilized during our hikes. As a novice hiker, and someone unfamiliar being in such a high elevation, I found myself in the role of a student. On more than one occasion, I was at the back of the group. I slowed down to catch my breath often. Instead of being embarrassed at my lack of expertise and slow pace, I had the opportunity to listen to and watch the natural world unfold around me. The calming roar of the stream. The buzz of bees lured to flowers. Paul encouraged us as well to touch the trees and dip our fingers in the water to fully embrace our settings. The world was ours to explore.
The physical intensity of our trip’s three hikes required proper nutrition. This area of life is something I lean heavily on others for assistance. I learned to cook and bake after leaving the Marine Corps, but I still tend to eat poorly at times out of laziness. The trip offered me the opportunity to see we can still eat well (i.e. not relying on MRE type meals) while on an outdoor adventure and utilizing less resources than I have in my home kitchen. The food prepared for us by Frances, Wendy, Tait, and Jake demonstrated an attention to using a combination of local foods with health in mind. Some new things I tried for the first time included a small bit of non-spicy kimchi, chickpea miso soup, and peach-apricot juice.
Coming together to eat family style is an important part of the experience. We ate breakfast, lunch, snacks, and dinner together. For brevity’s sake, I will not include all our meal photos in this blog entry, but I am including a number of photos. Everything we encountered was quite unexpected. I am amazed by the food knowledge shared during this trip and the combinations of foods I would not naturally think to try at my kitchen table.
I noticed early in this adventure we are a group of avid readers. Some people would rattle off their favorite writers during our nightly conversations and a number of participants brought books with their other possessions. Gathering for our literature readings, we found valuable insights that (sorry) I cannot share as the discussions as meant to stay with our group. The consideration extended to each other during our talks is something I think we need more of in our society; in spite of serving at different times, in different capacities, and in different areas, no one argued his or her service was more valuable than another’s. It was far cry from our very competitive society, to include inter- and intra-service branch rivalries.
This trip also showed me there is an opportunity aside from building new personal connections to continue working on improving pre-existing relationships. Three participants were familiar to me prior to this trip although we haven’t seen each other in a while. I thought we knew each other well enough prior to the start of this trip, but I started to open up to them more as the weekend trip unfolded. While I find it easier to write about my deployment and some of the ways it’s continued to impact my life, a difficult area has been talking about how it impacts my work with student veterans. The time afforded to me on this trip to talk about my work with my peers in such a casual setting was something I didn’t realize I needed.
One of the most important experiences I didn’t expect was the opportunity to spend part of my hike down from Margy’s Hut alone. Again, I would not describe myself as a nature person. I worry about bears. I worry about bee stings. I worry about getting lost. After stopping to photograph a few flowers (and ironically, a bee given my fear), I fell behind others in the group. Paul and I hiked down for a bit before he stopped to dawdle, as he indicated later to our group it’s something he likes to do, forcing me to go a stretch by myself. For that short stretch, I had to work on my confidence and along the way, I appreciated the little bits nature shared of herself. The air was perfect. I experienced quiet I haven’t known in years. The trail was overgrown in one area by flowers forcing me, against all logic, to walk through an area covered by at least a dozen bees. I powered through, giving them their space, and none attacked me. I was merely a visitor in their space except to the one bee who landed on my hand and I returned him or her safely back to a flower. The bees let me safely pass until I was reunited with my peers at the end of the trail, and we ended our ten mile hike down with a surprise visit by a doe eagerly eating clover along the edge of the parking lot.
The trip would not be the amazing experience it was without the contributions of my fellow veteran participants; Nancy Dallett (Assistant Director of the Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement at Arizona State University) for her efforts to bring the opportunity to us all; and everyone involved with Huts for Vets that I met on this trip (Paul Andersen, Erin Wilkinson, Tait Andersen, Jake Sakson, Col. Merrit, Dan Glidden, and Don Stuber). A special shout out also goes to our videographer, Krysia Carter-Giez. To watch her in action lugging her camera around during the hikes, standing on her feet for hours at a time, and her patience covering our interview sessions was incredible. I am a nervous interviewee, but she helped make this entire experience more comfortable. She is an invaluable part of the team whose presence behind camera probably does not afford her as much recognition as she deserves.
I will not forget the adventure I was afforded, and I hope by sharing a small bit of my experience, other veterans who could benefit from Huts for Vets would embrace the same opportunity to wander through the wilderness. Oddly enough, it was less wild than I expected; I (almost) felt right at home.