Last week, after a good day of splitting firewood with my family, we gathered around our table to talk. We looked at each other and went to the task of digging into what really happened to all of us in the green and very saturated mountains of Vermont.
All through the process of recording the journey of hope and healing, my family and I have committed to one another that nothing less than total honesty with each other and ourselves is what will guide this journey to the place that we all seek…inner peace.
There were several moments of the typical surface conversation that breaks the ice… and then the real issue at hand jumped right into my face. The truth is that I was ready to quit the trail all together. I hated the mud, I hated the rain, and I hated the incessant black flies. But, much more than those physical difficulties was weighing me down as I traveled to a familiar dark place in my heart and mind.
I have given everything possible to my family for 18 plus years, and I have (at times, and varying degrees) grown tired in the sacrifice of it all (I mean, who likes paying bills???). However, there is immense personal satisfaction in my role as a husband and father, even in the rougher days…and I love my role as a provider, leader, and encouraging friend. I have never felt cheated in giving to any of them (It is who I am at the core level).
But currently, I am in uncharted waters, and I now have a front row seat watching my two older sons ready themselves to go into bright and challenging futures, without my wife and I…and selfishly, I feel profoundly cheated. I don’t feel that I have had proper time to be involved with how they have come to who they are today. My wife has stepped up to the plate in a way that only other single mothers might be able to understand.
These strong and powerful feelings are all new territory for me now that I am not surrounded and inundated with a ravenous and never satisfied military career and lifestyle. The consistent training and mission planning for the never ending pursuit of radical and evil groups in our world was my personal identity for most of the waking hours in my days…and I lost myself in all of it.
Now, the real me and how I actually feel about a myriad of issues are flooding my inner head space. Since my retirement in February the only interaction that I have with the threat of terrorism is how it will effect my mood and thoughts after I read an article or see a news piece that updates me on the latest happenings that an extremist group has acted upon.
It used to be so effortless and easy to push aside the sad realities that have always been right under my nose. Some days ago on the AT in middle Vermont there were a host of thoughts and ideas that started racing into my mind…and I was spiraling out of control mentally and emotionally. I was employing every tactic that I have learned over the last few years in how to ground myself and not loose control, but I failed to do so.
The majority of my personal years of youth and precious time with my own sons was voluntarily sacrificed for the causes and purposes of a nation that my family and I have served. The weight and full realization of this truth hurts (right now) beyond words as I see them get ready to go. When I concentrate on these thoughts and feelings I turn very dark and very selfish. I’m not the only one that has been through this roller coaster of feeling, being so proud, and yet hurting so badly all in the same moment.
As we sat around the table having the talk, one of my young men hit me with a healthy dose of reality about how I typically react when I start to be overwhelmed with this kind of pain and lack of control that is often so very close to me in my heart and soul these days. He looked me dead in the eyes and said “Dad you turn into a total asshole…you have dropped that ball big time, and you have for a very long time”
Those hot words went right to the core of myself…because I know that it’s true. I know that he is right, and his words take me back to many years ago, as I would think and wish about having all the time with my kids that “regular people” take for granted. This is where a part of my angry and bitter self started to develop…and my family are the ones feeling the effects.
Well, here I am in the new reality of finally having time with my family…real amounts of time. The AT is a once in a lifetime chance and experience that is pushing and challenging all of us in so many differing ways. For most of us, the physical nature of the trail isn’t high on the list of challenges. The challenges that we are facing are deeply rooted in our hearts and minds, and when the conditions are right, we display the reality of these challenges on our selves with intense emotions, tones, and body language. We have displayed these things onto and into one another for some time…and this kind of thing has real consequences in a team, in a family.
At the end of our talk the other day, we all decided in unanimous fashion that we are committed to each other more deeply than ever before, and that the trail has been the fashioning tool and catalyst that has been used in the heating, cleansing, shaping, and forming of a people and family that we are needing to be…for other hurting families, for each other, and for a hurting world.
The experiences that the Appalachian Trail provided has proven to me that recovering from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Post Traumatic Stress (PTS), and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) is a life long choice. A choice to fight what many have looked at as an impossible task. I had once thought that my heart was empty and damaged for life…and that is simply not true.
I have a full heart, and have been shown that the rest of my days are not going to be defined by a time in my life that was marked with hardships and sorrows. I am going far not fast with the ones that matter…the ones I truly love more than ever before
Not long ago on the trail a true friend looked me in the eye and confronted my jaded cynical crutch that has been all to common a companion in recent years of my life. These sharp and surgical words from my fellow traveler cut me quickly into the most needed place of my heart and soul where the most deadly of soul crippling cancers had taken up residence for far to long.
Through the long and dark years that I had spent away from the ones I loved most my heart and soul had developed a thick and nearly impenetrable callus that I held onto with fierce determination. This condition developed over multiple years of pain and sorrow that I find difficult to adequately describe. I will attempt to paint a picture through an experience that will be burned into my memory for the rest of my life. This particular event came before I ever stepped one boot into Iraq in 2003….in fact, it was the day that I said goodbye to my precious family before loading out the plane that would fly me over for one of my multiple combat tours in the Middle East. The time had come to give that last huge and kiss to my wife and my two sons. Jeri Lynn and I were doing our best to handle to situation with minimal emotion and stay in control. However, despite my efforts to hold back my tears they began to fall like a strong southern thunder storm. I didn’t want my older son to see me loosing control of my emotions and cause him additional confusion and pain that he simply could not understand at the tender age of two and one half years old. The time for walking away had arrived, and I literally couldn’t breath…I feared that I was going to pass out from my anguish as I watched Jeri Lynn get into the car and put on her seat belt. The boys were tucked into their car seats in the back of our small white sedan….and the car slowly began to pull away from me. In that moment I realized the essence my commitment and oath, and the weight of it was becoming nearly too much to bare in that specific moment. However, my oldest son found it within himself to get his hand out the window as they pulled away, and I will never forget what his words sounded like that day, “Come home Daddy”, as his small hand reached out as to show me that I was not alone in my pain…at his young age, my oldest son felt the weight of what was about to define our lives for the next 15 years.
I found a way to recover my emotions that day so that I could go find my squad, who needed me to pull myself together, to get them onto the plane and through our tour of duty in Iraq. The truth is I left something of myself there on that sidewalk. In that moment where I felt pain, sorrow, and heart ache that has only been matched by loosing a fellow Soldier. I subconsciously started the process of shutting off myself and the true feelings in my heart and the sacred beliefs within my soul. This process continued and intensified through the many other events like the one I have described above. Time and again the agonizing goodbyes and long months and years of separation pilled up…and the real me that Jeri Lynn had married, and the father that my boys had known, and should of had, began to disappear.
My oldest son is now nearing 17 years old, and he knows full well the costs that are associated with the current wars that are being fought still today…the very same ones that caused him to say good bye to me that day those many years ago. He is not alone, as I have four more children that all have this intimate knowledge of what the word sacrifice means on a level that most American adults cannot relate with.
All seven of us are together in our journey as we walk this trail, and it is pulling the truth out of all of us in varied and differing ways. My truth that I have been addressing is the “crutch” that I have been carrying around for all of these years. I figured out a way to not feel anymore, and it has been rotting away the inside of me for many years now. This method of copping with my pain was not a healing device what so ever.
The crutch, used properly, is employed for a temporary time until the injured person has recovered enough to start walking again and gaining strength for everyday activity. There comes a time when the crutch no longer provides the atmosphere and conditions for healing to take place…but it then stunts the essential growth and strength that is needed to ever truly walk independently again.
My best friend looked at me on the trail not so many days ago, and called out my crutch. My critical and highly cynical attitudes that have dominated my way of thinking and acting have been my go to method for avoiding any kind of realistic emotional growth. This crutch has fueled maladaptive thinking and patterns of behavior. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of positive ground has been covered for me in the last two years in my personal battles, but it is clear that this is the next one to tackle.
A true friend, like the one by my side on this journey, is absolutely priceless. They will look deeply into your life and not throw you out with the trash. But they don’t stop there…if they have our best in mind, they will tell us about our self destructive actions or patterns that will suffocate our lives and the ones next to us who we love the most.
My very real and life alerting pain and loss is now being put into its proper place; the place where it will fuel post traumatic growth and healing.
Life has taken me a lot of places. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me at least, my destination has often been complete surprise. You don’t know where you are moving, or even if you are moving, very long in advance as a military family. This built something in me, a flexibility, a strength. I was hoping that I would be able to put that all aside once my Dad retired, but I’ve made a realization. I have not chosen a normal route for my life. I don’t want the regular, I will not accept the average, and the strength I earned from years of uncertainty is now the backbone for what’s coming.
I heard once that,”Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.” This statement has proven itself true to me. So many just sit at home, lead lives of “quiet desperation”, but my heart and my God are calling me to something greater. Why settle for a comfortable seat in the average when I could work for a place in the spectacular? This not for my ego’s sake, but simply for the journey. No, the years spent in confusion while my world was turned around and around will not be something I will allow myself to regret, but something I will use as fuel.
I feel pangs of sadness sometimes, as I watch people live “normal” lives. Prom season just passed, and my Instagram was filled to the brim with pictures of my friends and their dates headed off to what looked like a really fun night. I’m not going to know what that feels like, and it was a semi-saddening thought. But that just isn’t the path I’ve been put on. I’m called to something different, not something better, but something different. My own route has been carved before me and I am going to chase it with everything in my soul, no matter how it twists or turns. I will take whatever triumph or tragedy that accompanies it, and it will carve my life into something to unique for anyone to fully imagine. I don’t want a comfortable life, I want a meaningful one.
I fear that many of us won’t live that. I think a lot of people allow their fears, pasts, or sheer laziness dictate how they live. To them I say that a life lived under any of those is one lived under tyranny. Free yourself, free your mind, and go do something that people are going to think you are crazy for.
Pursue your path, don’t settle for average, get up, get out, and follow what you are here to do one step at a time. Happy trails.
For the last two years I have observed first hand the current process and system that has been designed to help transition our nations combat veterans back to their civilian communities and lives. I am deeply thankful for my care team and family for walking with me through this process for the last 24 months. Only with their un-ending support and love have I successfully journeyed back home both mentally, and physically.
The process for a veteran to receive a proper and fair disability ratting is one that can be intimidating to some, and daunting for most. I don’t know of anyone that I served with who was expecting to be labeled by the Department of the Army or the Veterans Administration as “Disabled”. (By the way, that word makes my skin crawl…and when I’m asked if I’m a disabled veteran it feels like some kind of bad joke).
A few weeks ago this complete stranger said something to me that I needed to walk away from. “Be careful out here in the woods…they might think you’re better, and you will loose all your benefits.” Through this short conversation it was communicated that multi-tour combat veterans, like myself, will not be able to truly find our way back into society. I tried my best to keep the rest of the conversation away from anything to do with the military, politics, world affairs, and the like. I expressed to her that I’m a real believer in nature therapy, and tried to keep the conversation light and positive for the next few painfully awkward moments.
(*Disclaimer-This individual also claimed to be a Doctor of some sort, and openly asked me “how much it cost to get my daughter “, with Zoey standing right next to me during our brief interaction- I took none of what she said to be sane or lucid)
…Please take a few moments to process what this short exchange was really about.
No, I didn’t make this up… and yes, this was a real conversation… just thinking about it makes my head hurt. The person who delivered this enablement filled, entitlement based line of thinking was simply stating her point of view, and she has the freedom to do exactly that. As crazy as this all sounds, many current veterans of our generation’s war are wallowing through this situation. This is such a difficult topic for me to adequately explain…this effects my family and I directly.
For those of us who have been told that we are no longer able to continue our service in uniform…we are deemed disabled. We are then put through a process of being rated on the disability. If the condition improves after our service is done we will go through re-evaluation, and our ratings for the disability will obviously be lowered. But, if we stay where we are or worsen, we will be re-evaluated, and the ratings go up. (I assume and hope that the person mentioned above had some knowledge of this information to base her statements to me that day).
I have spent many hours for the last few weeks (while living and walking in the woods) examining my heart and mind in all of this. I have searched myself high and low and have decidedly come to a conclusion in this issue in a very personal way…Nobody can define my “disability” except for almighty God and myself. I will probably struggle in certain situations for the rest of my days…and I have listened and learned from qualified professionals for how to properly deal with these struggles the right way.
It is time to draw from my traumatic and stressful experiences for growth. The physically strong only arrive at strength after submitting themselves to much pain under heavy loads that are voluntarily moved up and down…over and over again. My family and I are making that same choice, both spirituality and physically on this long extended walk. We are choosing to heal and grow stronger than we had ever thought possible, and that’s exactly what’s happening.
I’ll close this with one of my all time favorite Soldiers, who once said “Ever since I served as an infantryman in the first world war I have had a great dislike of people who, themselves in ease and safety, issue exhortations to men in the front line.” C.S. Lewis
What drives or convicts a common citizen to voluntarily and sacrificially give everything for other’s that they don’t know? Every military service member takes an oath and agrees to the possibility of the ultimate sacrifice…only after being completely informed and well aware of what might be requested by our nation in a time of war.
There is a much larger number among us in our society that also know the true cost and weight of sacrifice. These men and women know it full well, (much like military service members that follow orders to foreign lands and enforce national interests).
These sacrificial public servants know that there is no foretelling when a criminal will act, or when the deadly fire will break out…but the police officer and firefighter are in a sacred agreement with society in those moments. These professions submit them to go face those situations, in a moments notice…to do battle against these things, and possibly give their lives…the ultimate sacrifice. All of our society should support them with respectful thoughts, prayers, and funds. I feel that these men and women are most noble and deserve my unending respect and support. I have fought for them, and they fight for me.
However, from where I sit, there is a distinct difference in these occupations (Law Enforcement or Firefighter versus Military Service Member). It’s not in the level of salary, or hazards inherent in their roles…death is always the accepted risk in both. Rather, it’s in the responsibility (or current lack there of) in our society to maintain awareness and accountability for the leadership that they have placed in power over our Military. These appointed officials (with little credentials or conscience) are willingly sending military men and women of every branch into the situations in which they will be asked to honor the ultimate deal…without any way to define progress or achieve victory, for the last 16 years!
The Soldier, Sailor, Airmen, and Marine actually render over their rights in choosing to obey these orders that are without ultimate definition. The sacred responsibility issued to the undeserved wealthy few that have disregarded our constitution and recklessly acted on behalf of our poorly informed republic is ignorance personified. They are continually asking the ultimate price from a precious few, and these officials on either side of the aisle are unable to describe what they are accomplishing.
As a free people, we have a sacred requirement to ensure that the priceless cost of young American lives are given when there is no other option but to take up arms and face our threats on the field of battle…this is how a grateful nation truly honor’s the ultimate sacrifice given by our greatest and most precious resources.
Our nation’s apathetic ignorance of the current failed wars and continued support of the leaders who contributed to this situation is one of the largest struggles I face in finding my way home. I love my country…but I hate what we are becoming.