I’ve always been anxious and tense when interacting with war veterans. I usually end up stuttering, spitting out some words like “brave” or “heroic” and thanking them for their service while trying to escape the situation as quickly as possible.
This time I couldn’t sneak away. I was in Zion National Park hiking through one of the most confined natural spaces on earth, the iconic Zion Narrows, and – I was with three 20-30 something’s fresh off war tours in the Middle East. I could hear my ear-piercing anxiety amplified off the sky-high canyon walls.
I was nervous because I hold vets on an impossibly high pedestal. I’ve never really interacted with war veterans. My view of war has been entirely shaped by Hollywood, so for me, vets are superheroes. They are also broken, sad, angry and unpredictable. My view of this group admittedly was misinformed.
I ended up in this canyon because I wrote a story for St. George News regarding Salt Lake City native Mary Southerland and her Post-Traumatic Stress induced kayak journey, which in turn inspired this whole getaway. I was invited by Mary to tag along on this test-piece trip for her emerging non-profit: Utah for Veterans.
After returning from Iraq, Mary was shocked to find that many of the vets she’d encountered back in the U.S. had never been to the national parks. Her idea was simple: to bring small groups of recently returned war vets to Utah’s wilderness areas to adventure in some of America’s most renowned destinations.
“They’d seen war zones but they haven’t seen the national parks which they’ve fought for,” she said.
In fact, none of the vets on this trip had ever been to Zion National Park.
Mary witnessed war-zones first hand as a contractor in Iraq. Once back in America she found significant relief in visiting Utah’s national parks, which were sanctuaries to her.
For me, the wilderness, particularly the Zion wilderness, is where I go to fight my own internal battles – it’s where I go when I need to tap-out of life for a while. And at this point in my life, I urgently needed a tap-out.
I recently wrapped up a year of constant and exhausting overstress from several different factors, mainly work. I had been immersed in a long news reporting stint – a period in my life which at first was exciting and rewarding, but now just seemed like endless gloom, grief, sorrow and despair.
As a news reporter, I became warn down by constantly writing stories about crime, death, and horrific accidents in my community. For a peace-lovin’ hippie – a nickname my coworkers affectionately gave me – this constant barrage of negativity was extremely difficult for me to deal with. I needed a break.
The weekend I meet up with Mary and the vets, I felt so disconnected, and so buried in my own shit, that I just wanted to escape to Zion and I didn’t care what for.
I met up with the vets on a Friday in July, feeling troubled and disheartened. I entered their lives about halfway through their marvelous trip of a lifetime. They were all full of glee and adventurous excitement. I was undeniably exhausted by their enthusiasm.
After flying in to Salt Lake City, they had spent one day climbing in the Wasatch Mountains, and then drove to Zion, where they set up camp, and went canyoneering. The next day, when I showed up, they were prepping for a guided hike through the Zion Narrows – quite possibly one of the most awe-inspiring places on the planet.
Almost all their adventures, food, and lodging had been donated. Splore had donated a day of guided climbing, Zion Adventure Company had donated guided canyoneering, and Zion Outfitter had donated a guided trip through the Narrows. Other local companies like Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort donated cabins, and restaurants such as Oscars; and Bit and Spur donated meals.
Utah for Veterans first trip took so much unselfish effort to plan and came together with so much wholesome charity from the community, it overwhelmed me. I was not in the right state of mind to be around this much kindness and compassion. It made me feel worse. It made me feel ashamed that I wasn’t doing more compassionate things with my life.
But I was already there, and couldn’t turn back now. I met all three of the vets at once and we started our hike up the narrows.
Two of the vets, Will and Chris were from the Deep South – a place that I’ve never been and a culture I don’t comprehend. Will is from Tennessee and Chris from Indiana. Their southern accents were thick and most of their expressions puzzled me. They were aggressively outspoken, cordially chatting with what seemed like every tourist who passed by.
The third member of the group, Adrienne, was from the Salt Lake City area and had never been to Zion. Although all three were very kind to me from the get-go, Adrienne – not being from the deep south – had a familiar westerner presence which made me feel slightly more comfortable in the group.
While walking through the Narrows, I was blind to the beauty. My mind was entirely else where, and I felt guilty for not being present for these American heroes.
The Zion Narrows is one of my all time favorite canyons. It is my go-to refuge. It always induces harmony within me whether I want it or not. But not today.
Me being unhappy in Zion is unnatural. I know the Zion desert deeply. I used to interact with it almost daily. It gives me serenity, it brings healing, and sometimes it scares the hell out of me – in a good way. My friends call me things like “rock hippie,” “mountain man,” and “crunchy granola.” I’m a desert rat, a man who adores solitude and worships wide-open spaces, and Zion is my life-giving temple.
But today I had too much distortion in my brain. I couldn’t connect with Zion or the people in it. I felt like a legitimate outsider trapped, alone in my own sanctuary.
I had absolutely no intention of finding out what these vets war experience was like. I already knew that several of them had PTSD. I’ve experienced trauma myself and I understand how delicate it can be. Plus, at that point I didn’t have the nerve for it emotionally.
Despite my disconnection, I found out soon that our collective Zion experience would turn into a powerfully cathartic awakening for them and a wonderfully mind-bending initiation for me into the world of warriors.
The Narrows hike was surreal for the vets. They’d never imagined such a spectacular sight as Zion. They raved and raved about the aesthetic beauty of the park – its unbelievable immensity, and the serenity that they felt there.
We finished the canyon, and went to Oscars Café for dinner. They invited me back to their camp, and we had a spontaneous walk down to the Virgin River.
I had been non-interactive all day. I was feeling guilty for being a part of something so divine, and not giving anything back. I felt empty, like I had nothing to offer.
Then something changed. We sat our camping chairs in the Virgin River. The flowing water somehow induced a truth-filled round-robin more powerful than any therapy session I’ve ever been to. And, I’ve been to many therapy sessions.
Once the river flowed over our toes, the vets organically started talking about their post-war experiences. For some reason, they opened their hearts to me. And according to them, they’d never opened their hearts like this before. I saw them escape, for a brief moment, the stresses which war had brought on. They became free of the usual cares that day-to-day living necessitates when dealing with trauma.
Will and Adrienne were very fresh off duty, Chris had been back in the U.S. for a little longer, but none of them had felt right since returning.
Every aspect of your life changes after war, Will said.
“It goes to normal, and you’re not used to normal, so normal isn’t good, it doesn’t feel good to you.”
Will was a combat warrior for Unit 194 in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2014. He fought on the front lines, and was constantly faced with the brutality of battle.
Chris also said he felt discontent and unfulfilled after returning from war.
Chris served six years of active duty in the 29th infantry. He was deployed to Korea, and was also part of the initial invasion of Afghanistan. He was a combat soldier who spent much of his time as a mechanic salvaging vehicles that were destroyed by war to keep other vehicles running for more war.
“You had an important job. Now it’s gone, you don’t have anything to do any more, and you seize up,” he said.
After 10 years serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, Adrienne returned home also feeling useless.
“For 10 years I had a reason and a purpose,” she said, “I get back and I don’t have that purpose anymore.”
Adrienne was part of the initial Iraq invasion in 2003 serving in the 438 Military Police Detachment. She spent almost all of her adult life in the Middle East before recently returning home to Salt Lake.
“I went from being a helper for 10 years – now I have to find a job that is somehow going to make me feel just as good. And that’s really hard to find. I came back and it’s all gone.”
All three deal with an emptiness, a lack of purpose and feelings of disconnect from society.
“In the unit that I was in in the military,” Will said, “everything was so damn important. Everything you did was more important then you. Even if … we all get slaughtered, the mission would be worth it, our lives would be worth it … I don’t really have that any more. I feel kind of like I’m living in a state of uselessness.”
None of them had been able to talk openly about their trauma since they’d returned. But something about the river and the canyons of Zion allowed them to finally open up. They even started to call the Virgin River the “river of truth.”
When they got real and started to talk about their struggles, I actually started hearing them. It miraculously pulled me out of my internal pit of self-pity.
Besides their collective feelings of uselessness, one of the most noticeable trials they’d all faced was a constant longing for their community – those tight bonds they’d built with their squads back in the Middle East.
Back in the U.S., without members of your unit around, Will said, it’s been very difficult finding a sense of camaraderie. His friends from the military are always just a little too far away, he said.
“I know the feeling when you feel like you’re the only one in the world – when you feel lonely in a crowded room.”
“You come back,” Adrienne said, “and you don’t even necessarily have a unit – the unit I was in for ten years, all the people I’ve known, I’ve trained with, I’ve served with in both deployments, they were all gone … you can’t go without having all that friendship and camaraderie … I need somebody.”
Adventuring in Zion allowed them to feel that bond again, they all said.
Canyoneering was particularly intense for the group. It started to rain while in the canyon – which can be very serious and life-threatening situation. During the rainstorm, the group ascended ropes trying to get out of the canyon.
“I didn’t trust my equipment – I thought I was going to fall – my foot came out of the strap – I was hanging on for dear life,” Adrienne said.
Fortunately Chris followed right behind Adrienne and automatically jumped in and positioned himself so that Adrienne wouldn’t fall. They all worked together, got out safely, and bonded doing so.
Overcoming adversity in this threatening situation was like being back in a unit, Adrienne said.
“The team work is good for me because it feels a little bit like we’re training,” she said, “it brings back memories.”
These are not the only veterans who have related adventure to war. In fact, an adventurer and Vietnam Veteran who won one of the toughest wilderness challenges in the world, the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic said of the expedition: “The stress and intensity of the Wilderness Classic is as close as a civilian can come to experiencing actual combat.”
For a civilian like me, I can’t relate to war, but during the river of truth session, I could empathize with the same feelings that these warriors felt.
The truth session reminded me of the life-giving force of adventure. Rock climbing, canyoneering, and trekking through the backcountry of Zion – that’s living for me. I’ve had some harrowing experiences, running out of water, getting hopelessly stuck on climbing routes, or lost on backpacking trips. Although the danger is serious and risks are apparent whilst adventuring, it always makes me feel conscious and alive – a feeling that’s difficult for me to find sometimes.
I had been so caught up in routines and in the menial tasks of modern life, I’d really lost track of this adventurous life force in my life. That night, in the river, these American warriors, with help from magical Mount Zion, rekindled a fire in my heart that had gone dim. A fire for adventure, a fire for life.
As Will put it: “This place is like medicine – if you apply it right and you go in with the right attitude – it can heal you.”
“Something about this place is spiritual,” Adrienne added, “you can hear the canyons talk.”
Our truth river session ended as the sun started to fade behind the Zion’s colossal cliffs. I had to say my goodbyes and start my hour-long journey home to St. George. They stayed in Zion for a few more days before returning to their separate lives across the country.
I went home to my regular life. Everything was still the same. My problems were still there, my stress was still there, as well as all my glaring insecurities. However, one thing changed: I had a smile on my face – a smile awakened from warm thoughts of adventure, and the beauty of humanity. Zion, as it always does, gave me a perspective of something much bigger and much greater then me.
“If you feel a loss of love for your country. If you can’t find a reason to love America or appreciate it,” Will said, “then come to Zion.”