This spring marks my five-year anniversary of coming home from Iraq. It has been an incredible journey, and one I'm thankful that I've lived all the way through. Iraq was a tough place to live. America after a year in Iraq may qualify as a tougher place to live. Sure, there aren't as many car bombs or snipers, but most days, over the last five years I'd have chosen a convoy down Route Sword versus another office park, strip mall, or fried onion handed out for free on Veterans Day.
I've been bored, scared, pissed off, guilty, bitter, and thankful since I got home. I've struggled with and worked through unemployment, depression, substance abuse, and daily suicide ideations that have been stretched out to one every couple of weeks. Some days are better than others, but mostly I'm glad to be sucking down oxygen every day. I've earned myself a master's degree, a stable job, and kept myself out of prison, the emergency room, or the morgue.
What has kept me going? What has made it all worthwhile? There are obvious answers: family and friends. My support network is second to none. Where the VA has been unable to prevent me from panic attacks in the lobby and given me my choice of anti-depressants, I've had a collective belay team of friends and families that hasn't prevented me from falling, but have prevented me from hitting the ground when I fall and ensured I could keep on going once I stabilized from the fall.
And there is the less obvious answer in that analogy of a belay team. Where I've found the reality of getting vertical and needing a real belay on a rock wall to deal with the highs and lows of a life after war. With the guilt of feeling as rough as I have after only one year in war, while others suffered through so much more, it was a rock wall, a fast moving river, a quiet frozen lake in northern Minnesota that kept me moving up the wall of life and beyond the bitterness. It's the outdoors where I've found and rediscovered friends and shared experiences that have become pieces of the puzzle that are making my life whole again.
The last five years have left me with two pretty clear observations about the wilderness and the outdoors in the context of an American Soldier:
1. As a nation, we owe it to our service members, their families and their children, to preserve and keep wild places open as a place, if nothing else, for our veterans not just to heal; not everyone is broken, but simply to be. There are no waiting lines in the woods like there are at the VA and it's easier to meet someone at the base of a climb or a put in on the river, then it is at the bar.
2. From soldier to citizen, the woods, the wilderness, the crashing surf, the still desert, or towering mountains are the most effective bridge over that gulf from combat and war to our communities in the suburbs, small towns, cities, and rural areas of America.
If managed correctly, and with 44,000 service men and women coming home from the war in Iraq and one million service men and women separating from the Department of Defense in the next five years, the wilderness can help ensure this influx of highly trained soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen can be a significant boom, rather than burden on our nation's resources.
Tapping into what can become the next greatest generation we have already invested in are our nation's veterans, America can be a great nation worthy of the sacrifice we've made in the last 10 years. It may sound too simple, but I really think the crucial first step is as easy as getting outside into the wild country we defended here at home.
Stacy Bare is a climber, mountaineer, and sometimes surfer who served one tour of duty in Iraq as a Civil Affairs Team Leader after being recalled from the Individual Ready Reserve. He received his commission into the United States Army from the University of Mississippi and is currently the National Military Family and Veterans Representative at the Sierra Club.