KUSA - "War creates sacred moments, both good and bad, that we hold on to the rest of our lives," Stacy Bare, co-founder of Veterans Expeditions, said. "The outdoors are where we can go to create new moments, generally without the negative. Nature reminds us that the coolest, biggest, baddest thing we've ever done can be in front of us. It gives us a reason to live."
Veterans Expeditions sprang from a dire need. As the U.S. began winding down its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at the end of the last decade, soldiers returned home to begin civilian life. Many grappled with injuries or post traumatic stress disorder. Earlier this year, a deeply troubling statistic emerged: In 2010, 22 veterans took their own lives each day, according to a report by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In 2010, the now 35-year-old Bare met fellow climber and veteran Nick Watson. They shared a similar thought-could the outdoors help their fellow veterans as it had for each of them? Bare, who works at the Sierra Club and served in Iraq, had received a small private donation from a friend of a friend with the marching orders to put his idea in motion and get veterans outside. But he didn't know how to organize a guided trip. Watson, now 40, had spent his post-Army Ranger years guiding and leading wilderness therapy trips, but drifted between jobs and communities across the West. Both had struggled with their own medical issues and the emotional trauma of active duty and found relief in the outdoors.
It started humbly. That first year, the duo pulled off two trips and got a total of 18 veterans out on weekend trips. In 2011, they summited Wyoming's Grand Teton with a team comprised of veterans to commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Momentum grew and pretty soon Watson and Bare's personal project grew to include a support network of caseworkers, medical advisors, guides, and noted climbers like Conrad Anker and Timmy O'Neill.
"We try to push up to people's limits as safely and successfully as we can," Watson, who served in several different countries prior to the second Iraq War, said. "There's a fine line. We weigh that carefully."
In 2013, Bare and Watson got 250 veterans involved in their expeditions, training programs, and community-building programs. Based in Denver, the organization opened chapters in the Pacific Northwest and Northeast. They paddled and fished Alaska's Togiak River, climbed iconic peaks in Washington State, and traversed New England's classic Presidential Range.
The goal is to keep growing the number of small, community-driven trips while preparing, training, and building funding for bigger expeditions into the world's great ranges. Watson is planning a Veterans Expedition trip to Denali in 2015 and hopes for a shot at Everest in 2016. While the weekend goal may revolve around a summit, the greater aim is to reestablish the sense of community veterans lose after returning from war.
"My trauma is unique in how I got it, but the fact that I've got it is not," Bare, who still struggles with a head injury, said. "What we are doing works for veterans. It works for cancer survivors. It works for survivors of extreme poverty. It's not just veterans that benefit from the outdoors."
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