“You guys saved my life.”
These five words spilled out of an Iraq combat veteran, a 6-foot-2 Marine named Dan. His voice shook with emotion and tears flooded his eyes as he described his experience from a wilderness solo.
The setting was Sawmill Park, a grassy meadow in the Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness surrounded by an evergreen forest and a stunning view of the Elk Range. We had stopped for solo reflections, each man wandering into the woods for solitude and shelter as light rain pattered against our jackets.
Dan emerged from the forest halfway through the solos and stood in the middle of the meadow, his gaze on the distant peaks. “When I was on the solo,” he said later, “I was more scared than I have ever been in my life. In the middle of that meadow I suddenly felt safe because you men were all around me. I felt protected and no longer alone.”
Facing inner demons leaves many vets quaking with unease. Dan’s experience was his own, but it is not uncommon. Another vet in the program, an Army sergeant named Chris, described his challenges in his application form:
“Since my return from deployment almost seven years ago I was searching and grasping for something that made me feel human again. My savior has been the opportunity to work in the outdoors and wilderness areas that we are blessed with. My mind slowly begins to slow down and my anxiousness and anger tends to subside when I am at one with nature. I look forward to this opportunity, not only for myself, but to share it with others who are in the same boat.”
Feeling Whole Again
There are tens of thousands of vets in that boat, men and women who are lost in their reentry to civilian life, adrift without their military mission, alone without their comrades-at-arms. Another applicant put it like this: “I want to be able to find coping mechanisms and enjoyment in things I used to do. I want to be around people going through some of the same issues I am.”
“I’m looking for a sense of calm and peace,” wrote another vet. “I am very tired of being easily startled — as if mortars or an IED are going to go off at any moment.”
“I would love to be able to be whole again,” shared another, “doing things I used to do without feeling the fear and anger that is crippling me.”
With these needs in mind, Huts For Vets was founded in Aspen in January 2013. The idea is to take small groups of vets into the wilderness and offer a perspective shift by removing them from the tumult of life and providing a safe place where they may gain the courage to feel again. The program offers an antidote to angst and alienation, a soothing respite from the uncertainty of life. With two nights at Margy’s Hut, the 10th Mountain hut built by Robert McNamara, veterans share an intimate, communal experience and a rare expression of joy.
These three-day programs begin with a 6.5-mile hike to the hut from the trailhead at Lenado, a portal of sorts to a world few of these vets have ever entered. Hiking through lush forests, snacking on wild berries, crossing logs over streams, these vets do what the philosopher Kierkegaard experienced: “I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”
As Doug Peacock wrote in his book, “Walking It Off,” “The best wisdom comes directly from the earth. It runs right up our roots into the spirit. Walk on. The feet will inform the soul.”
Jayson, an Iraq War medic, took this metaphor a step further when he passed his prosthetic foot around the dinner table at Margy’s Hut. An amputee from the right knee down as the result of an IED blast in Iraq, Jayson wanted to share the latest technology with his fellow vets. His synthetic foot became an amusing centerpiece and a sobering reminder of the seriousness of war and its lasting wounds — visible and invisible.
That plastic foot also produced a kind of gallows humor among vets who employ jokes, chiding, self-deprecation and war stories to normalize their experiences. Gutter humor, dirty limericks and a fount of profanity is part of the lingo that builds camaraderie. Behind the humor is a sense of pathos and sympathy, the components of caring that these brothers openly exhibit.
Time in the wilderness provided the ease necessary for belly laughs around the dinner table where tears came rolling down cheeks from a litany of jokes, songs and jibes. Laughter is where healing starts and understanding begins.
‘The Best Therapist in the World’
From the big dinner table at Margy’s Hut, large windows reveal a dramatic view of the Williams Mountains. This table is a communal launch pad for shared experiences, a safe place to talk, a place of trust and nourishment, of laughter and song.
Adam McCabe, a Marine from Carbondale who served in Iraq, brought the house down one night with a song of unity he wrote for veterans. Adam strummed the guitar and sang his heart out, and everyone joined in the final chorus. What followed was a din of cheers and table pounding that filled the hut with brotherhood bound by unbridled joy.
Adam, who serves on the HFV staff and board, also presented Trauma Release Exercises (TRE) and other tools for mindfulness and self-control. He heads Purple Star Veterans and Families, an organization with national goals to provide these and similar tools to vets, helping them to reenter society as productive members and effective leaders.
The “shrink,” as 81-year-old HFV board member Dr. Gerald Alpern jokingly refers to himself, offered valued psychological insights during the program. “Picture the best therapist in the world,” he said, “one who knows you well, your background, your life, one who understands you as a person. That therapist is you. It is your higher voice. That’s where you have to go with your questions, issues and actions.”
Other perspectives came from a notebook of readings issued to participants a month before the program and including Thoreau, Shakespeare, Viktor Frankl, Doug Peacock, Tom Brown, and a host of others. Collectively, these voices formed the basis for moderated discussions that opened unexpected insights.
“When I got out of the service, I couldn’t have been dragged into reading poetry in the woods,” said one vet. “But I see what these people are saying, and that’s important to where I am today.”
“I have built high walls around me,” said Justin, an Iraq vet, “and I don’t let many people in.”
Hiking quietly on the trail, Justin wasn’t asked to open those walls. Listening to fellow vets divulge their inner truths, fears and reflections, however, he did so willingly. Trust and mutuality tear down mental walls built for self-preservation.
Group breakthroughs came through impromptu missions like extracting Jayson’s SUV from a snow bank in June, with every man doing his part. Another came while splitting enormous rounds of firewood for the hut and stacking it against the coming of winter. Group chores brought bodies together in common labor and made sport of physical challenge. The lesson here is that if you want to get something done, assign a veteran to it, or a team of vets. The energy they harness is amazing to witness.
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” evoked Shakespeare in “Henry V,” and it was bands of brothers who parted with bear hugs at the end of each program.
“My new mantra,” reflected one vet several days later, “will be carried on, and my wife cried when I told her: ‘I’m going to better myself for you and this family, better myself so that I may enjoy the freedoms of life, and better myself so that I may help other Vets.’ Don’t let everyday life get you down. Carry that torch of healing proudly and share it with those who are willing to listen. We will get through this, not alone, but together. Ultimately, that is what defines our Brotherhood.”
Concluded Dr. Alpern: “I came to Huts For Vets expecting to be available for wounded souls. I didn’t expect to learn how talented, dedicated, and just plain great vets are. Yeah, they suffer problems, but their courage and motivation to continue giving to others has been a revelation. Reach out. Get to know a vet and you’ll find a quality person who has more to offer than you could ever imagine.”
Paul Andersen is an Aspen Times’ columnist and the founder and executive director of Huts For Vets.