Over these many years of war, the news has spiked with incidents like this and other heart-wrenching tales. Much attention has focused on veterans disfigured by bullets and bombs, or so mentally damaged that they’re unable to hold regular employment or maintain healthy relationships with friends and family. And some would argue that the shocking number of suicides—last year, 349 active-duty service members killed themselves (more than died in combat) along with hundreds of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan— has not received enough attention.
But there is a vast swath of combat veterans that isn’t often talked about: those who may not bear the outward scars, and who may have decent support networks and coping skills, but who nevertheless struggle to find their place after they come home and quietly try to fit back into their old lives.
So it was for Hensrude, Rivera, and me: The war didn’t take our legs or our eyesight—or our will to live—but the war very much left its mark on us. After leaving the Army, I spent years writing about the military, traveling several times to Iraq and Afghanistan, in part because I felt more comfortable being around those in uniform than those who didn’t have firsthand experiences of the war. I didn’t need a psychiatrist to tell me that wasn’t the healthiest way of reintegrating, and I was intrigued when I heard about Rivera’s journey. Could hiking a trail fill in missing pieces?
“You’re supposed to get out of the Army and the world’s your oyster,” Rivera told me. “But all you’re doing is applying for jobs you can’t get, or getting jobs you don’t want. Maybe you have a girlfriend who doesn’t want to be with you anymore. Your self-confidence is eroding every day, and you’re surrounded by people who don’t understand where you’re at. You have no control over whether your family will understand you or not,”he said, “or whether an employer will hire you or not.”
But the trail, he said, can provide a sense of purpose. “You’re in control of everything on the trail. The route, mileage, food, shelter. Whether you hike alone or with others.”
In the morning, Hensrude walked back to his car, and Rivera and I headed north, higher into the Cascades, with stunning views of sparkling glaciers, rocky ridges, and alpine meadows. But toward day’s end I didn’t notice much of that, and the hike felt just like a road march: feet burning, shoulders aching, and head bent, watching the feet of the man to my front.
“The soldier’s mind-set is perfect for this trail,” Rivera said. “You get beat up every day and you take it.”
We camped that night next to an alpine lake, and after dinner Rivera squatted at the water’s edge, refilled his bottles, and stared at the mountainside that rose up from the lake.
“Only six days left on the trail,” he said.
“Are you excited?” I asked.
He waited a moment before responding. Snowmelt trickled over rocks across the lake.
“I’m a little sad,” he said. “This has been my life for the last half a year.”