Life After Huts for Vets
By Erik Villaseñor
Spending three days in the wilderness surrounded by vast mountain ranges, lush forests, and running streams can do amazing things to your mind, body and soul. Mix in the camaraderie of a small group of veterans led by an organization with a passionate sense of service to help heal veterans, and you have yourself a life changing experience – one that I truly believe can help those who have experienced war, have been greeted by the Darkness, and look to acknowledge its presence in a healthy and respectful way.
By integrating a wilderness therapy program into a warrior’s return into society, you’re arming him/her with an alternative way to cleanse the warrior mind and spirit. Studies have shown, and history tells us, that Mother Nature plays a huge role in mental health. Our connection to nature is primal and deeply rooted in our psyche, playing a crucial role in our cognitive functions (re: Your Brain on Nature). This leads to the conclusion that those who have experienced combat should return to the wilderness to seek peace, solitude and meaning in their now transformed mind.
I offer this blog post as a testament to the power of Mother Nature, paired with the discussions and readings of this program, to be truly beneficial for soothing the warrior mind and soul. From the eight-mile hike up for our two-night stay at Margy’s Hut, being totally immersed in nature made for a humbling and trustworthy atmosphere. I felt like a huge weight was lifted off my chest – you know, that same feeling you get when you take off your gear after a twelve-hour patrol in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Only this time, there was no pending attack that could happen at any time after the weight was lifted off. There was only the view of the vast mountain ranges being kissed goodnight by the setting sun. It was almost as if the forest had cleansed us of our demons and we could move forward, with hope, to better days. On our final day, I can still remember feeling this huge blanket of peace draped over me, as I could not stop looking at the beauty that surrounded us. This is it. This is why we shed our blood, sweat and tears…to look out into the vast wilderness and say, “This is what my brothers and sisters died for, this is what we fought for, this belongs to us all.”
For me, life after the Huts For Vets trip has been overall positive. Sure, I have my days, like anyone else. And when those days come, I look to nature and to getting myself outside. I’m fortunate enough to live in the small town of Rifle, Colorado, a town most would consider a basecamp for “western adventure.” I’m a short drive or bike ride to public land, hiking trails, mountain biking trails and fishing – we are surrounded by nature. I find sitting quietly in the forest with no cell phone, camera or constant hum of a car to be rejuvenating. It is here where I let my mind wander and often reflect on brothers who have fallen, fighting for this very land. For me, this intensifies my bond to nature where I’m thrilled that I can quietly and peacefully connect with these brothers and begin healing the scars of war. The forest does not pass judgment on your scars, but accepts them, allowing you to not look down on your wounds but to look up and see what is in front of you. You can only get to where you want to go by looking up! So, here’s to “looking up” at the wilderness, preserving it, and telling others of its raw healing power.
To conclude, what Huts For Vets revealed to me is that peace, relief and purpose can all be found amongst the trails that lead you deepest into the woods. I have gained the tools and knowledge to allow my mind to process events, emotions, and thoughts in such a way that pays homage and respect to our fallen as well as to the demons that may never go away. I’m not even sure that I want them to truly go away as they’re a part of me, and I am not ashamed to say that war did change me, and that’s ok; it’s a natural reaction to stress.
My desire now is to see more of my fellow veteran brothers and sisters experience a Huts For Vets trip and develop their own way of coping with the darkness and fog of war. I hope you have found this helpful, I look forward to helping my fellow veterans experience the healing-power of the forest. We’ll see you out there.
“May your trails be dim, lonesome, stony, narrow, winding and only slightly uphill. May the wind bring rain for the slickrock potholes fourteen miles on the other side of yonder blue ridge. May God’s dog serenade your campfire, may the rattlesnake and the screech owl amuse your reverie, may the Great Sun dazzle your eyes by day and the Great Bear watch over you by night.” – Edward Abbey