The Healing Tree

By Mike Greenwood, Tenth Mountain Division Veteran and Huts For Vets Alumnus

I find myself lying completely still in a rain storm, on my back, looking up to the sky wondering what I’m doing here and why can’t I move. A few seconds later I feel a rush come over my body as if I am falling off a building, heading directly for the concrete below me. I am stuck in this fall…

My journey to this spot and into these feelings started a few months before I plopped down on that wet ground. I received an email from another veteran group with information about Huts For Vets, and honestly, wasn’t too interested until I saw that we would be using the 10Th Mountain Huts to connect with nature. I signed up and instantly regretted it. You see, I was doing my best to get away from the “poor veteran” stigma that was surrounding many of us around this time. I didn’t view myself as being broken or in need of help. When I took this free trip, I felt like I was falsely admitting that I needed help.

As the trip began to unfold, I received my book of readings and refused to open it. I felt that if I opened it, it would become reality and that I would be giving in to the thing I had been running from for so long. In my mind, at that time, I would become a “poor veteran” and I would need to be helped.

The morning of my trip, I packed up my car, stashed a lunch in the trunk and set off for Snowmass, CO with a heavy head. I felt as if I was going against everything I had worked so hard to get away from. Since leaving the Army and rediscovering nature, I had become a runner. I started running because I noticed that when I was out there, sweating and pushing myself, I was able to leave a lot of the things I had been carrying around since Iraq and Afghanistan out on the trail. With running I found peace. On this drive, I felt like I was running behind myself and shoveling up every memory, emotion, and weight I had dropped in the past
four years. I was weighing myself down once again. How would I ever get up that trail into that hut?

On my way up to Snowmass I had to fight the urge to turn around at almost every mile. In my head, I was making it out to be a forced death march, where I would surely perish. I pulled into the meetup spot numb and feeling like I was being guided by something I couldn’t control. I would later find out that I was being guided by nature to come and experience her, heal in her, and give her everything I scooped back up on that drive up there.

While lying on the ground, face pointed at the sky, with rain soaking my body as it falls from the black clouds above and spreads itself across the ground, my fall begins. But I quickly realize that I am not falling, I am actually watching everything fall towards me. I envision a funnel with the top open towards the sky, accepting vivid memories from my past like the lake at the bottom of Niagara Falls.

…I see myself as a little kid, standing alone, crying in the front yard as my mother is carted away on a stretcher because she was just beaten up by her boyfriend and has a broken eye socket. This one falls deep into the funnel…it’s been with me for a long time and is trying to claw its way back out, pleading with me to extend my hand…but I let it continue its fall…

…I’m sitting in the middle of my high school gymnasium feeling like every eye is on me because I am the poor kid from a broken home and have no shot at life. This one is bouncing off the walls, scraping pieces of them as it stumbles towards the bottom…this is one that has given shape to my life up until this point…I’m happy to see it fall…

…I’m running towards an Iraqi Army truck that had just been hit with and IED and has multiple casualties sprawled on the side of the road. The soldier I run to has his eye hanging out of his head and has multiple wounds on his legs, with blood pouring out of every one of them. This one is swirling around the funnel, takings it’s sweet time as it makes its way to the bottom and out the other end, finally falling on the rain-soaked ground next to me. It’s trying to get me to pick it back up…but I turn away from it and let it crumble!
The last image to fall is of me and all my army buddies sitting in a bar in Brownsville, NY smiling, tossing back PBR’s and singing “Don’t Stop Believing’” at the top of our lungs deep into the night until our voices are hoarse. This one falls in slow motion; it looks as if it’s flushing the funnel clean as it makes its way down, picking up all the other memories and forcing them out the bottom. As it hits the ground, it’s the only one to survive the fall…it’s still intact…

As the fear leaves my body, I look back up to the sky and notice that the funnel is gone and the quaking aspens are waving at me as if they are saying, “Hello, welcome to life, we have been waiting for you…” I reach to my right and touch the tree and feel her beauty as she passes through me, and this is the first time in years that I feel at peace. I feel as if I am part of something again…accepted for who I am. I don’t feel shameful or weak or broken anymore. Even though I never admitted it, deep down I had felt that way and was trying my hardest to hide it. I feel free now!

I jump up as if I am being pulled to my feet by a greater force…and directed forward. When I stand, my head is high, my back is straight, and my eyes are pointed forward. This is the moment I begin to heal…out in that meadow, surrounded by trees, wildflowers, and a group of veterans who are also trying to find their peace under a tree… I feel good.

In the years to follow, I would join the Huts For Vets crew in the production of a play, acting out a character on stage; this was my first and last time acting, but I did it. The next year, I would be trained in moderating discussions around the readings in that book I was so afraid to open on my own first day. The following year, I was asked to return to that trail, to that hut, and to my tree on the side of that meadow, this time as a moderator and member of the guide team. The next year, I would lead my own group up that trail, into that hut, and past my tree as I honed my skills as a leader, a husband, and a father.

To this day, I can still see my memories laying at the base of that tree, battered, bruised, and torn from the elements. But I also see myself standing tall, head up, back straight, eyes forward, with my feet planted firmly as that aspen tree waves good-bye and slowly nudges me forward with one of her branches…