Another Army friend, Lloyd Hensrude, picked me up at the Seattle airport the day before my trek. We drove out to Stevens Pass in Wenatchee National Forest, 60 miles northeast of Seattle, to link up with Rivera. I hadn’t seen either of them since leaving the Army in 2005, after our second deployment.
Hensrude, 28, looked much the same as I remembered him—lanky, with a loping walk and easy smile. But I barely recognized Rivera when we met him. He hadn’t shaved since starting the trail near Campo, California, on the Mexican border, and now sported a long beard and shoulder-length black hair. His pants and shirt were worn thin from daily use. On his feet, a pair of desert- tan Lowa boots, the same type issued to soldiers in Afghanistan. This was his third pair.
The three of us hiked a couple of miles and made camp. Rivera built a fire and we drank a few Pabst Blue Ribbons and caught up on each other’s lives.
Like many veterans, we missed the camaraderie of the military, and were glad to reconnect out here in the woods. Part of this, of course, is the shared experience of serving in a combat zone. But there’s more: The world seems different after those experiences, or maybe you seem different, and those who best understand that are often far away. Learning how to cope with this feeling of isolation is just one of the challenges we all faced.
“It’s not a matter of just keeping busy. You have to find something that gives your life meaning,” Rivera said. “Trying to fit in, trying to find meaning, trying to put your life back together or start a new one—it’s tricky.”
Some make the transition from the battlefield just fine, or with a few bumps. Some don’t. We knew that. We knew Dacus.
Nine months earlier, on November 29, 2011, Sean Dacus, 31, who was in our infantry company, walked into a Grand Forks, North Dakota, emergency room and asked to borrow a marker. He sat on a bench outside, wrote “do not resuscitate,” his blood type, and “donate organs please” on his arm—then shot himself in the chest.
In the years after Dacus’s Iraq tours, his life had fallen apart. He’d been exposed to the same war as the rest of us: a few roadside bombs, occasional mortar and rocket attacks, and some sad and gruesome scenes that linger in the mind. And always the endless tension of waiting. Waiting for a trashpile to explode. Waiting for bullets to snap overhead. Waiting for home.
“When he came back, he was not the same person who went over there,” an uncle told a local newspaper reporter after the suicide.