Noah Pippin, a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and our war in Iraq, went out into the woods and did not come back. As reported in May's issue of Outside Magazine, the young veteran, who had served in combat zones, was on his way back to the Marine Corps after working in the civilian world. He had planned to rent a car and drive to California from his parents' house in Michigan, but he never made it. Instead, he chose to detour to Montana, where he was last sighted somewhere out on the trails of the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
As someone who advocates for and acts on the philosophy that getting our military veterans and their families outside into the woods is a fundamental first step towards full community reintegration and to give us, as veterans and our families, a new sense of purpose in the outdoors, people have asked me what I thought.
My immediate response to the article was perhaps a bit caustic, "So what? We've got 18 to 23 veterans a day committing suicide and one heads off into the woods and never comes home. Why is his story more important than any other veterans? ALL these men and women have important stories to tell." Think of ESPN's coverage of Junior Seau vs. the men and women who die daily that served our country. I guess I should be glad that someone decided to investigate this particular story. I felt, however, that there was an insinuation that by supporting programs that get veterans and military families outside, one might be promoting this sort of Into the Wild-esque disappearance of veterans.
What is troubling to me about this story, as with most all the veteran- and service member-related suicides I read about, is that I can understand, in part, why the veteran chose to walk away. There are moments, when I am at both my weakest and my strongest that I still think about checking out from this life. The mystery to me isn't so much why he chose to leave, but why others have chosen to stay.
Why have I chosen to stay? It is because despite all my mistakes and shortcomings, I've found a place, the outdoors, where I have found a new sense of mission, camaraderie, and physicality of purpose that was missing in my transition from combat to home and from uniformed life to non-uniformed life. Out on the trail, I have found a community where I can add value and be valued. Rather than a total focus on prevention of negatives, we need to make a conscious choice to promote how good life can be in this country and help identify those opportunities to our veterans.
Given the right training and the right team, the Bob Marshall Wilderness could have been that place for Mr. Pippin. He could have followed the same trail into the Bob Marshall, perhaps a bit earlier in the timeline and come back out a richer man for the experiences and with a few new friends to go to other wild places Mr. Pippen helped to defend.
I sincerely hope that the Pippen family is able to someday find closure and healing from this tragedy, and the rest of us can learn from the situation on how to better bring our veterans home. If as a warrior, veteran, family member, or supporter and ally of veterans, get involved. Check out your local Sierra Club Outings group, or for the broadest and one of the best community resources out there, check out WarriorGateway.org.
There's a place for you in America and we'll help you find it.