In honor of Veterans Day, I watched the battlefield documentary "Restrepo." I was moved by an American soldier in Afghanistan confessing he is so haunted by nightmares of a comrade's death in combat that not even sleeping pills help.
I've recently learned that post-traumatic stress disorder is the most insidious killer of today's troops, whose suicides have eclipsed war deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. Millions of U.S. soldiers, even those who didn't see direct action, are stricken by suicides and mental-health challenges as they struggle to adjust to civilian life.
As a war-protesting child of the Vietnam era, I have finally come to terms with the needs of veterans. I might not be able to end war, so the best I can do is try to help veterans heal their wounds.
For inspiration, I've looked to the wilderness surrounding Aspen. Many people find solace and meaning in the mountains, so I'm betting that the potent force of nature in our beautiful national forests can become a unique environment for psychological healing.
During the wilderness seminars I run every summer at Margy's Hut, I see participants open up to a universal sense of connection with nature. For veterans, wilderness could provide the same vital connection and serve as an antidote to the anguish, loss and disassociation many report feeling after military service.
It is for these soldiers, and for my own sense of purpose, that I plan to launch in 2013 Huts for Vets, a program featuring three-day wilderness seminars designed to provide veterans with healing insights and opportunities for positive personal reflection.
Ironically, the veterans I take to the mountains may soothe their wounds at one of the first 10th Mountain Huts built in the 1980s by Robert McNamara, architect of the Vietnam War. At Margy's Hut, named for McNamara's wife, veterans may discover a warm homecoming in a log cabin and a path to recovery on mountain trails. It's equally fitting to utilize a hut system honoring soldiers of a respected division of mountain troops.
I believe that wilderness hiking, coupled with carefully moderated discussions and a communal hut experience, can produce a psychological salve that can replace sleeping pills, alcohol and drugs while easing a variety of stress-induced dysfunctions. These veterans seminars could offer an effective alternative or complement to traditional cognitive therapies because of the easy intimacy that hut trips routinely provide.
This summer, I laid out the idea to Gen. Stanley McChrystal when he was in Aspen for the Ideas Festival. He acknowledged that Huts for Vets has merit, so he put me in touch with Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who was also attending Ideas. I described my concept to Rieckhoff, who said he is open to a proposal.
Local veterans are also supportive. John Henry, a former Marine living in Carbondale, has been particularly inspiring. Henry has launched his own start-up program - Purple Star Veterans and Families - which is heading an on-line petition drive (go to www.
purplestarfamilies.org) urging the Pentagon to create a "reverse boot camp" where discharged soldiers can decompress from the trauma of active service rather than being thrown out into an often uncaring world.
Henry developed the idea with his son, a Marine who returned from Afghanistan despondent. Tragically, Henry's son died in a motorcycle crash soon thereafter, so John Henry has mounted the campaign as a deeply personal mission to honor his son and the countless others who have suffered similar loss.
For local veteran Adam McCabe, a Marine who served two tours in Iraq, the healing mission is paramount: "Every 80 minutes an Iraq or Afghanistan vet is committing suicide. That's 18 per day, 540 a month, 6,570 a year - more than we've lost in both Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. These numbers are multiplied by alcohol, drugs and traffic accidents where vets are trying to match the stimulus they experienced in war. From Vietnam, we lost untold numbers. These guys are unprepared for their homecoming, and society can no longer turn a blind eye. We need to act."