Invisible Wounds

Post-traumatic stress disorder afflicts one in five military veterans. One organization believes it has the antidote—just don't call it therapy.
Nick Watson, a co-founder of Veterans Expeditions, in Boulder, Colorado. Photo by Andrew J Bydlon

Hours before sunup, we click on our headlamps and follow the blue-hued cones of light on the first steps of what will surely be a very long day. We’re embarking on a 20-mile traverse of the Mummy Range in Rocky Mountain National Park, over the course of which we’ll summit seven peaks over 13,000 feet. For the first half hour or so, our crew of eight military veterans doesn’t say a word—the only sounds are gravelly footfalls and varied degrees of labored breathing in the thin alpine air.

Then, later, as the sun cracks the horizon and initial small talk of a dismal Colorado Rockies baseball season fizzles, I hear a young veteran just back from Afghanistan sigh. He turns to an older Army vet and says, “I miss it over there, to tell you the truth. I miss shooting my gun and blowing things up. I can’t find a job here. I’m bored, and I don’t know what to do with myself. It’s miserable. As awful as it was at the time, I just wanna go back.”

A former Navy officer speaks up. “I haven’t served in 10 years, but I still struggle with similar thoughts and depression.”

Then a young Marine: “You can’t handle things in real life the way you did in the military. Violence and anger get things done over there. Here, well, you need to act differently.”

And just like that—no couch, no tweed jacket, no $200-perhour tab—the therapy begins.

It’s mid-summer, and I’ve been tagging along on climbs like these with Veterans Expeditions, or VetEx, a Colorado-based organization founded in 2010 whose goal is simply to get as many vets outside as possible. I want to find out if climbing could be the cure for one of the fasting growing epidemics in America today— post-traumatic stress injuries and disorders.

Stacy Bare, the other fo-founder of VetEx. Photo by Ed McCulloch

Shell shock, battle fatigue, soldier’s heart, combat stress. The psychological wounds of war are nothing new. What is new, however, is the astounding numbers of men and women who have returned home to the United States in recent years and are still struggling to heal this unseeable pain. During the last decade, the U.S. deployed two million service members overseas, including many into combat. Just a year ago, President Obama ended the war in Iraq, and the White House projects at least one million military personnel will return home in the next five years. Recent studies by the research groups Rand Corporation, Blue Star Families, and the Center for New American Security suggest that at least one in five of them will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), yet only 35 percent will seek treatment. Our country faces a massive influx of veterans, and the conventional systems don’t seem to be working. And VetEx agrees.

Instead of getting overwhelmed at the negative statistics, Army veterans Nick Watson and Stacy Bare decided to do something. Inspired by their own experiences with the healing power of nature, Bare and Watson launched VetEx in spring 2010. “You get a lot of training for what to do while you’re in the military, but we didn’t get any training on what to with all those experiences once we got home,” explains Watson. “That’s exactly where VetEx comes in. We’re shedding light on the issue, taking folks outdoors, and giving them a place to build community so they can deal with some of the challenges they currently face.”

Scientists at the University of Utah have shown that outdoor recreation can help diverse populations, including veterans, in dealing with psychological and social challenges, and further studies are underway through a partnership between the Sierra Club and the University of Michigan to explore the specific benefits for PTSD and war veterans. Regardless of the data, enough anecdotal examples exist that suggest “campfire therapy” works.

“Being outside, whether climbing, mountaineering, or just hiking, gets you out of your head,” says Bare, a former captain in the Army. “For me, this was a way to ease my frustration and boredom with civilian society. The way the war has impacted me is constantly evolving. I’m not cured and might never be. But the wilderness showed me where I was broken and slowly started stitching my body and mind back together. Most guys and gals need this, whether they admit it or not.”

As we trudge from forested valley to chossy Mummy Range summits, I see something simple yet powerful happen: expressions soften, smiles come easier, shoulders relax. This group found solace in the camaraderie of a shared experience in the alpine. As Bare later tells me, “We do not have a clinical agenda. We are not a wilderness therapy group or guide company. But many of our participants have said that they found their trips with us to be healing experiences. And that means something different for everybody.”

Bare shows off a new tattoo, which reminds him to fight complacency. Photo by Ed McCulloch

Bare’s light-bulb moment happened on the First Flatiron, one of the three 1,000-foot-high tilted standstone slabs serving as a backdrop to the climbers’ town of Boulder, Colorado. After topping out, it was time for the free-hanging rappel off the back.

“I was totally freaked out, and I was gripping the rope with everything my gigantic hands could muster. White knuckles. My partner Chuck coached me for almost 10 minutes, but I was totally paralyzed and couldn’t move, so finally he physically forced me to step backward off the ledge,” says Bare. “It was probably the most awkward physical moment I’ve ever had. I was embarrassed for how scared I was, but at the same time, I couldn’t do anything about it. I was gripped. It was a bit of a blur, but it felt like everything from my five years in the military—and especially that year in Baghdad—all hit me right when I tried to rappel off the First Flatiron.” Bare recounts this story as we rest in the shade against a wall in Eldorado Canyon after a day of cragging. His booming voice and commanding presence can’t mask what his eyes and body reveal when he relives the harrowing experience of getting down from his first climb.

“I was afraid to trust Chuck. I was afraid to trust myself and my gear. When my knees stopped knocking and I stepped back, ultimately getting to the ground, I realized I had faced down those fears. Not defeated them, but faced them down, and I came away with a draw. I knew then I needed to climb—and that I had to get other folks into it, too.”

Bare’s climbing has come a long way since then. He cruises up a face in Eldo without hesitation, moving with a grace and fluidity that don’t match his burly frame. It’s hard to imagine this 6-foot-8-inch, 250-pound guy being scared of anything, let alone having it fester to the point of paralysis.

“We got shot at. We got mortared. We got blown up. We saw dead people. I lost friends. To say it was intense is the understatement of a lifetime,” says Bare while belaying Chuck Burman, his buddy and mentor, on another Eldo route. Bare served in Iraq during the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom and runs through this list with clinical speed. The emotional distance is palpable.

Being a soldier on deployment was tough, but Bare’s biggest challenges were waiting at home. “You get home and it’s over and you think to yourself, ‘Why can’t I get this stuff out of my head? It was only once and now it’s over.’ You don’t want to feel this, but you still have all that trauma swirling. I was rattled, didn’t know where I fit into a non-military society, and was depressed and suicidal. I was also doing cocaine and drinking myself stupid. I was headed down a really bad road.”

Bare’s troubles are all too common. More veterans are homeless, unemployed, and incarcerated than their non-veteran counterparts. Many turn to substance abuse, violence, even suicide to cope with the overwhelming difficulties faced after service. The Department of Veteran Affairs reports that more than 18 veterans kill themselves each day—that’s one death every 80 minutes. And for every one soldier killed during military operations this year, nearly 25 veterans will die by their own hands.

“I couldn’t repress the pain,” Bare continues. “But the crazy part about it is that I was only over there for a year. I didn’t have multiple deployments. I wasn’t in Fallujah. I saw some fucked-up shit, but it was pretty much middle of the road when you compare it to some other guys’ experiences. And so you come home and you don’t get why you feel so bad. I mean, can you imagine what those other guys are going through, who have seen so much more?”

Team VetEx summits the Grand Teton.

From the outside, Bare looked whole. He was going to graduate school, had friends, and was functioning in everyday life. He didn’t have any scars, and he wasn’t missing any limbs. But, beneath all of that, he had some deep emotional gashes that needed healing. He felt numb, isolated, and disinterested. “I was having lucid hallucinations, nightmares, and violent reactions to simple things like being touched. I was treating people like shit, or just not letting them in at all.”

Bare may not have known what to call it yet, but he— like so many others—was dealing with PTSD, an anxiety disorder that, to paraphrase Webster’s, develops after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. When you consider that more than 2.3 million Americans have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, and 800,000 of them have deployed multiple times, it’s likely that hundreds of thousands of veterans may currently be suffering in what should be considered a mental health epidemic.

Isolated and trying to find the camaraderie he knew in the service, he reached out to Burman, who was living in Colorado Springs, though they hadn’t talked in years. “Yeah, I was worried about him,” Burman says. “The military is very type A. We do not like to show weakness. The biggest thing we all worry about is letting our buddies down. If you’re having problems coping, you keep it to yourself and suffer in silence. Eventually, this can wear on a person.”

Burman, an Army “lifer,” has firsthand experience with this; he admits that after getting back from his last trip to Iraq, he shut himself off from activities and people. “When I talked to Stacy, I knew he was in the same place. And I thought I might have an activity that could help,” he says.

Bare and Burman take a breather in between pitches on Eldorado’s Whale’s Tail to regroup. They sort gear, hand cams and biners back and forth, and explain how they began climbing together.

“I called Chuck a few times, and I was complaining a lot. ‘Hey Chuck, I’m depressed…’”

“So am I! Let’s climb,” Burman interjects with a laugh.

“Chuck, I’m suicidal.”

“So am I! Let’s climb.”

“Chuck, I miss the war.”

“So do I. Let’s climb.”

“Yep, that’s basically how the conversations went,” says Bare, cracking a huge grin. “He got tired of me whining about my life, and eventually we set a date to go climbing.”

“We’re military guys. We bust on each other. That’s how we show we care,” says Burman. “But seriously, I knew that getting him outside would help get him back on an even keel. And climbing— it feeds the risk-taker part of us, but it’s also very Zen. It gives you a couple hours where all your problems go away and makes everything else look small and inconsequential.”

It worked for Bare. “For the first time in as long as I could remember, I did not think about anything other than making it to the top of that rock. I mean nothing. So now, when I bitch to him, he just says, ‘Let’s climb,’ and it usually works.”

Just a month after his First Flatiron climb, a funder presented Bare, who was working for Veterans Green Jobs at the time, with an opportunity. They wanted Bare’s help in organizing a mountain climbing trip for “disabled veterans.” When asked for their definition of a disabled vet, they responded: “You know, someone missing a leg or an arm.” Bare argued that the trip should be open to all those who have served, because many veterans might not recognize themselves as disabled, or they might have mental health issues that were still unrecognized and untreated.

Team VetEx ascends Mt. Rainier's Emmons Glacier.

The funder liked his all-inclusive approach, and Bare started planning an expedition that would bring veterans together and re-create the teamwork that they missed from the military. He had the skills to get people stoked, and he loved climbing. But he was not experienced enough to lead a group of people into the wilderness. Enter Nick Watson, a former sergeant in the Army Rangers and a mountain guide with 20 years of guiding experience, who heard about the trip and contacted Bare.

“I learned so much in the military, but I struggled with the transition from a fast-paced military life to the slow pace of civilian life,” says Watson. “Time in the wilderness fed my need for adrenaline and challenge, while also giving me the space to breathe and heal. I knew there would be power in sharing that.”

On September 11, 2010, eight veterans, ranging in age from 24 to 65, who fought in conflicts from Vietnam to Iraq, climbed Longs Peak, Colorado’s northernmost fourteener, and VetEx was off and running. VetEx teams have successfully summited Longs Peak, the Grand Teton, Mt. Rainier, and Mt. Shuksan, and they have their sights set on larger peaks like Denali, Kilimanjaro, and Mt. Logan. They’ve run 15 trips, have reached 220 vets, and, most important, they’ve created a support network that remains intact beyond the mountains.

“Climbing is the closest thing to a military experience one can have in the civilian world. All you have is the stuff on your back and the guys next to you,” says Bare. “The outdoors introduced me to a new community of like-minded people with positive goals and attitudes. Finding a place where I could relax and be myself, and finding a group of people who enjoyed pushing themselves to similar levels of physical and mental exhaustion experienced in war, I found a home. And so have many others.”

One convert is Robert Himber, a spry 67-year-old who served as a counterintelligence special agent in Vietnam. Himber believes organizations like VetEx “cut through the institutional BS and make room for healing to take place. This isn’t a psychologist who’s never been to war or dealt with depression, but has read a lot of books. This is a group that knows what it’s like to be in the service. We’ve eaten lousy food, scrubbed toilets and shoes and brass. We’ve been scared.” In other words, being with people with similar experiences creates an environment more conducive to talking about what they’ve endured.

“Even though we are intentional about bringing vets out here, the whole goal has really always been that therapy is a byproduct,” says Bare. “If Chuck had called me up and said, ‘Let’s climb the First Flatiron because I want to talk about your mental health,’ I would have told him to fuck off. But climbing is just another way to connect and work through that stuff.”

“The act of belaying places someone’s life in your hands and commands your full attention,” adds Himber. “Choosing adventure over the mundane puts our problems into perspective.”

The words are barely out of Himber’s mouth when one of the guys says, “Enough of this talk. Let’s climb.”



Comments

Beautifully written, thank you.

ChickyLoo - 05/06/2013 9:42:44

Excellent Chris.

steve dunham - 05/05/2013 10:06:20

Excellent Chris.

steve dunham - 05/05/2013 10:06:18

CHRIS; YOU ARE A GREAT WRITER; WONDERFUL ARTICLE; KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK, HOPE YOU GET MANY MORE ASSIGNMENTS TO WRITE ON ANYTHING. YOU ARE GOOD GIRL LOVE YOU MORE AGGIE BAGGIE

AGGIE BAGGIE - 05/04/2013 8:57:28

chris....what a remarkable article....it feels like i am sitting in the room talking with these guys..very touching, and sad at the same time... we really need to help these vets... thanks for the perspective, and information... great job

helen - 05/03/2013 8:40:35

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