10/16/2012 01:30 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2012

Embracing the Hole and War

I dedicate this post to SSG Jeff Larson. High school classmate and the reason for much laughter and many smiles throughout his life, SSG Larson died in September 29th following three tours with the Minnesota National Guard. You fought the good fight Jeff.

When I left the Army in 2007, it did not take me long to realize, there was a hole inside of me. Something was missing, maybe even broken. The camaraderie? The mission? The sense of purpose? CPT Freeman and CPT Mahafee? A dozen, two dozen, three dozen or more troops and friends? All missing. All gone.

I hated the war, but I loved being a warrior. It was my calling. I answered it for roughly 11 years, and then I came home to an empty curbside at Bradley International in Hartford, CT. In the months and years that followed, I realized America was glad to have me back. Unfortunately, many didn't even know I had ever left, and those that did wanted me to be who I was before the war: no hole.

I tried to be that person, and in a painful, prolonged process I learned I could never be who I once was. In large part because of the hole, and in an equal part because war had condensed my life experience so much it evolved me quickly through the baser and nobler aspects of humanity that those who do not go to war may not experience. I did not feel normal coming home; and I certainly did not feel okay. I don't blame my family and friends. They kept me alive through the process. They were all, in their own way saints and angels.

But I defied them with my addictions, my depression and my dreams of suicide. When I found climbing in 2009, I immediately thought I had found the answer. My hole could be filled with climbing. It was just what I needed to replicate the positive aspects of war: camaraderie, sense of purpose, mission, a warrior spirit.

The problem is that if you spend a lot of time trying to fill a hole, you can slip in. The edges crumble. You lean too far. And, eventually, you will fall. We all do. At the bottom there is what you'd expect to find: darkness; and depression, suicide, homelessness, addiction; 18 suicides a day amongst veterans, active duty suicides outpacing deaths in combat this year.

With arguably more money and more awareness on veteran issues than any time in history, why is the bottom of the hole so full? Is it because in reintegration programs, our country has slipped into assimilation programs in rushing to make us "normal" again? Is the reintegration process a set-up?

Or is it that damned hole?

When a friend of mine posted this quote from fitness guru Mark Twight describing his experience when he left hard climbing behind, I began to rethink my approach. Substitute the Army or war with climbing:

Walking away left a hole inside me that was impossible to fill. Nothing could replace what climbing had been to me so I didn't bother trying. Instead I enjoyed the necessity of the hole, learned about the man around it, and never looked for something to put into it. As I became comfortable with where I had come from and who I was new doors opened to new possibilities.

What I realized is that for me, climbing, more than filling the hole, has actually led me to new doors and new possibilities. It gave me the time to analyze and become comfortable with who I had become around the hole. And, perhaps most importantly, it has helped me realize I'm not looking for just a new normal. If I wanted to be normal I would not have joined the Army in the first place, so why would I want it coming home?

I don't have to fill the hole. Neither do you. Embrace it. Define it as you see fit and move on stronger because of it.