Lasting Victory: “The wilderness has helped me so much. It showed me where I was broken and slowly, it stitched both my body and mind back together…” Photo: Caleb Bury

Eight shadows creep through the forest guided by headlamps, instinct and the cadence calls of teammates. While most Americans snuggle deeper under the covers in predawn slumber, this group climbs higher, pushing onward over rugged terrain. While their goal is to get to the top of Long’s Peak by sunrise, their purpose stretches far beyond reaching the summit.

“We are a small group of veterans climbing Long’s Peak simply because we can,” explains 28-year old Ian Smith, who spent eight years in the Army and served in Iraq. “We are here for each other and here for the men and women who could not be here.”

On September 11, 2010, these eight veterans summited Colorado’s northernmost Fourteener with Veterans Expeditions (VetEx), a Boulder-based non-profit that uses wilderness challenges to connect veterans, create community and raise awareness. The organization’s inaugural adventure brought together a diverse crew from a variety of conflicts including Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam.  “This event showcased the abilities, talent, dedication and drive that our veterans possess,” says Smith.

Inspired by their own experiences with the healing power of nature, Nick Watson and Stacy Bare launched VetEx in spring 2010. “I’m motivated by a desire to give back. I learned so much in the military, but I struggled transitioning from my fast paced military life to the slow pace of civilian life,” says Watson, a former Sergeant in the Army Rangers. “Time in the outdoors fed my need for adrenaline, challenge and freedom while also providing me with space to heal, breathe and recover.”

Veterans often struggle upon returning home; depression, drug use, incarceration and homelessness plague many. The Army Times reports an average of 18 US military veterans commit suicide each day. VetEx is working to buck these negative trends.

“Healing. Reintegration. Help. These are a few words that are taboo for a lot of veterans, but most guys and gals need this—whether they admit it or not,” explains Bare, a former Army Captain and Bronze Star recipient. “The wilderness, the outdoors and VetEx all provide an opportunity to be tough, but also a place to talk, to connect with others, and to figure out on your own and with the help of your brothers and sisters in arms, how it is you can heal and how you can get help if you need it.”

Watson and Bare are working hard to secure funding that will allow VetEx to expand the number of veterans it serves in 2011 and beyond. VetEx has several trips planned to engage veterans nationwide, while the Front Range Chapter already provides monthly opportunities for local participation. The founders want to see chapters in every state so that veterans can consistently spend time together exploring the outdoors at home.

“The wilderness has helped me so much. It showed me where I was broken and slowly, it stitched both my body and mind back together so I can make it through a day in society. I want to share that with as many people as possible,” says Bare.

“Ultimately, it’s our hope that we can show other veterans how to find some peace within themselves through finding peace outside,” adds Watson.

See more information, and to view the trailer for filmmaker Michael Ramsey’s upcoming documentary on the VetEx Longs Peak climb.

—Chris Kassar