Photos and words by HFV alumnus Adam Stump.
Nine veterans from all branches of the military, two mentors, a psychologist and a wilderness guide sat on benches at a long, wooden table at the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association’s Harry Gates Hut June 30, set against the backdrop of the White River National Forest in the Colorado Rockies. The previous days had been filled with a variety of challenges as we read through dozens of readings and talked about our emotions.
Identity. Relationships. Grief. Peace. Fear. Presence. Loss. Addiction.
Huts For Vets is not a typical veteran outdoor excursion. While they are arduous hikes, the unique part of Huts for Vets is reading passages from Shakespeare, Doug Peacock, Stephen Ambrose, Viktor Frankl and others while engaging with nature. Wilderness took us away from our normal lives and put us in an uncomfortable place. We were forced to be vulnerable. We opened our hearts and minds to our brothers.
The wilderness allowed us the peace to confront our individual issues, engaging all of our senses at the hut, the three hikes we took and an hour of silence in the wilderness. The birds sang melodies for our ears. The wind touched our face. The snow-capped peaks stole our gaze. The smell of aspens and firs provided an olfactory delight. And the freshly-cooked meals replenished our bodies. This backdrop allowed us the chance to become better versions of ourselves.
On the last day, we read Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s “Gift From the Sea.” The section we read was Lindbergh’s process for collecting shells from the beach and using those shells to remind her of her simple island life with space, time, solitude, balance and sharing. After we finished the reading, we each talked about our own shells we would take back.
- Set time for silence and solitude. As military members, we are taught routines and schedules. PT. Formations. Appointments. To be able to balance our lives, we need to improve on setting time for peace and solitude.
- Walls hinder relationships. We construct walls to keep people out. We could be hiding pain, insecurities or vulnerabilities. When we construct walls, we stop ourselves from developing relationships that could help us through these challenges.
- Stories and inputs. We need to listen to each other. Others’ stories and inputs add value to our lives because they can help us better understand our own lives.
- Tranquility. Our military service is rough. Death. Destruction. Stress. Fear. Grief. Our long-term health is based upon finding a place mentally where these events are placed in the past and we are able to find peace.
- Beauty is out there. Some of us shoulder an incredible amount of pain, both physical and emotional. We cannot let our pain burden our lives. We have to open our eyes wider to the beauty in the world.
- Have a place for solitude. As we learned, the wilderness is a powerful place for solitude. There are no distractions. We can have a chance to think and process our thoughts and emotions. We need more of these opportunities. (Note: Congress currently has legislation on this topic, H.R. 2435: Accelerating Veterans Recovery Outdoors Act. Please read it and if you agree with it, write your U.S. Representative and ask that person to co-sponsor the legislation and ask your Senators to introduce a mirror bill in the U.S. Senate.)
- Calmness. Even post-military, we are faced with challenges. A loss of a friend. Making sense of our service. Finding our identity. We must strive to find calmness within our lives.
- Gratitude for hearing experiences. Each of us has a story to tell. Each is different because of how we processed and reacted to different situations. We should express gratitude for our brothers and sisters opening up on their struggles.
- Coming together at the table. We should not hide from our struggles. As we learned, each of us had them. When we came together at the table, we helped start the healing process by both listening and talking. We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we talk.
- Perspective. We need to look further out than just the next task at hand. We need to be aware that a decision now can affect the future, but not worry ourselves with the myriad of consequences.
- Mountain beauty. The mountains never disappoint. We need to open up all or our senses to appreciate and soak in what the wilderness has to offer. The same could be said of our lives in general.
- Faith. Faith in our religion. Faith in our fellow service members. Faith in the people who want to help us. Faith we will overcome our struggles. Faith that tomorrow will be a better day than today.
- Choice. Our lives are a series of choices. We can burden ourselves with the wrong choices or accept those choices as what made us who we are. We cannot change those choices. Regretting choices is living in the past. Anxiety about choices is living in the future. We must live in the present.
We each took something away from this trip, which changed each of our lives. We also left some things behind. Pain. Loss. Guilt. The wilderness and a spectacular program through Huts For Vets gave us back a piece of ourselves, spiritually, mentally and emotionally. While the program is not a silver bullet to cure post-traumatic stress, the trip instilled a powerful memory to guide us on the path to healing.
Adam Stump served in the Air Force from 1993-2014, retiring as a senior master sergeant. He deployed twice to Afghanistan, a year with detention operations and six months with special operations, along with several trips to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan with the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Adam is an avid mountain biker and hiker. He’s shown with one of his favorite hiking buddies, Bailey.