What is Moral Injury and How Does It Influence Coming Home: Part 1

Hello everyone! The Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York provided another opportunity for Almost Sunrise to be seen and the topics contained within it to be explored. Like the Mountain Film festival in Telluride, Tom and I, along with director Michael Collins and producer Marty Syjuco, watched the film with audiences and then answered their questions. It was an invigorating and inspiring time filled with good people eager to better understand the issues impacting Veterans and how they could, potentially, positively impact life for Veterans and their families. The festival was an amazing experience. Thank you to the Human Rights Watch committee for including Almost Sunrise in this year’s festival.

One of the questions that came up was the audience’s need to better understand the concept of moral injury. The film, after all, posits that it is moral injury that is the issue that is the “signature wound” of our era of Veterans. This isn’t a completely new idea, but it is relatively unknown. Whereas PTSD has been fully accepted since the 1980’s, understanding moral injury is still in it’s crawl stage.  Research has been done by a host of doctors, researchers, and therapists into what role moral injury plays in the reintegration of Veterans into normal society and American culture. It’s fascinating. If you’re interested, here are some links to some awesome articles that better explain what moral injury is. I ask that before you read more of this post, read at least one of the articles on moral injury. You’ll have a better understanding of what I share below.

http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/newsletters/research-quarterly/v23n1.pdf

http://projects.huffingtonpost.com/moral-injury

http://www.newsweek.com/new-theory-ptsd-and-veterans-moral-injury-63539

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/07/healing-a-wounded-sense-of-morality/396770/

I was motivated to share with you a better understanding of my experience and how moral injury influence me. So, here goes:

The first time I went to war I was 21 years old. My friends were choosing college classes and going out to bars. I was choosing which direction to scan for insurgents and going out on combat patrols in Baghdad. I couldn’t appreciate or understand what it was my friends were doing as everything happening in their lives felt untouchable, distant to me. My life was going in directions that my friends and family couldn’t understand as I was becoming a reflection of my experiences. In my words and actions, I was becoming the chaos I saw everyday.

I volunteered to go back to war when I was 24 years old. I told no one. My entire family, my friends, and my coworkers were under the impression that I had been chosen to go to war to fill a vacancy in a deploying unit’s roster. In reality, I called my unit and volunteered. There was one caveat to my request. I remember saying, “I would like to volunteer. Send me to Afghanistan or back to Iraq. Don’t send me to some worthless place like Kuwait or Qatar. Put me back in it.” It was my duty to go back. The desire to go wasn’t rooted in fighting. The desire was rooted in a need to fulfill what I felt my obligation to be.

Iraq left me with vivid memories of the highest highs and the lowest lows. I saw tremendous work done by American soldiers. I saw inspiring rebuilding efforts by Iraqi citizens. I saw Iraqi children living fearlessly as they walked cratered roads where roadside bombs had exploded in an effort to kill and maim us. I saw dead bodies and injured people. I experienced, first hand, the roadside bomb. I saw one American soldier die. My memories have created a space in my mind that is like a bad neighbor—they’re always there and you deal with them as cordially as you can, but it can be hard to stop them from ruining your day when they decide to be loud and obnoxious. You beg and plead for peace and coexistence while they toss garbage over the fence. They relish being the thorn. It gives them purpose.

When I came home from my deployments, I expected to pick up my life where I left it. I was naïve and optimistic like any young man should be. However, both of my homecomings resulted in only brief periods of relief and joy followed by grueling, extended periods of sadness, regret, guilt, anxiety, and depression. It took a toll on my family and my relationships. My wife, hoping to have the man she married, was forced to adapt to the man she now received. My friends, hoping to have the guy they’ve always known, were forced to deal with a friend who liked to isolate himself from the world and didn’t have time to hang out anymore. I retreated from everyone and everything I knew. I couldn’t stand the idea of blemishing those I loved with the realities of the “new” me. It also wasn’t their burden the bear. I was constantly exhausted from lack of restful sleep, constantly anxious and unable to relax, and anger became my new constant companion. My world was becoming smaller and filled with negative thoughts, actions, and consequences. I wanted to kill myself. I thought about it constantly. How? When? Should I leave a note? Chest or headshot? I practiced and rehearsed. I took an unloaded gun and completed the steps over and over. I was building the muscle memory I needed to do it.

Thankfully, a different opportunity to address the pain emerged. I went on a long walk—a walk from Wisconsin to California. Together with my friend and fellow Iraq Vet, Tom, we traversed the landscape of America on our way to the Pacific while mentoring each other as peers. I thought about what I could do to address the pain and guilt and sadness that permeated every aspect of my life, ripping even the joys of fatherhood away from me. At the end of the 2,700-mile odyssey, I didn’t feel healed and fixed. I felt better prepared to handle the steps it would take to get there. And I will get there.

Recently, someone asked me to define moral injury and explain the difference between PTSD and moral injury. I explained PTSD is considered a mental disorder, where moral injury is more like a bruising of the soul. I explained, “PTSD is what wakes me up in the middle of the night. Moral injury is what keeps me from falling asleep.” The irony is that dealing with moral injury is what allows you to wake up and see life happening before your very eyes. It’s worth addressing and you’re worth fixing.

I’ve been dealing with moral injury, PTSD, and my memories of Iraq for over a decade. But I’m hopeful that the time I’ve spent addressing these things will leave me stronger and more capable. The horizon is bright. After so many years it’s easy to see the light in the distance as a freight train barreling full-speed at you. Instead, I prefer to see it as the light of a new day. It’s almost here. I want to meet it. I’m too awake to roll over anymore.

 

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We’ll see you on the new trail. Keep checking in. More blogs to follow😉

 

-Anthony

 

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Almost Sunrise is Alive

 

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When Tom and I first planned Veterans Trek, we wanted to create a film to document our journey. We wanted to show Veterans, their families, and the non-Veteran community the sights and sounds of a trek across America. We also wanted to share in our healing from war. Lucky for us–for all of us–the charge of creating that film became the responsibility of talented and dedicated filmmakers, and not two dudes with long beards.

Everyone…Almost Sunrise has arrived.

The documentary debuted this weekend at the Mountain Film festival in Telluride, Colorado. The reactions of those who watched the film reaffirmed that every step we took on the walk and every minute the filmmakers spent editing and crafting the film were so very worth the effort.

The audiences we shared the experience with were as diverse as our Nation. Young and old. Veteran and non-Veteran. Hippies and Colorado cowboys. All who came to watch became witnesses to an odyssey that took Tom and I from naive young souls who joined the military to fight with brave soldiers in defense of our ideals, to bearded trekkers traversing the country in search of healing from our war experience. Those who came up to us after the film concluded spoke of their love and gratitude for the story the film told, as well as their motivation to help other Veterans in need. It was, needless to say, inspiring for all those involved.

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Tom, Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad, Anthony, and Mountain Film festival director David Holbrooke at the world premiere of Almost Sunrise in Telluride, Colorado.

For the film crew and us, Almost Sunrise is an opportunity to share a message too many Veterans fail to understand: when we feel like all hope is lost, when we’ve allowed anger and depression and regret and guilt to consume every living cell in our bodies, when we’ve allowed the memories of war to usurp the present moment, we must hold on. It is very easy to let the pain of the past overcome the promise of the present. It’s easy when you’ve seen what human beings are capable of to become cynical and, as cynicism is want to do, turn that cynicism inward. Trust me when I say that I understand how that happens. What I have yet to discover is why.

For those who followed our trek, you may remember a friend we made along the way. Wolf Walker met Tom and I in the Garden of the Gods and taught us a valuable lesson: we hold the key to our own redemption. By reclaiming our power–our selves–we can confront and overcome the issues that prohibit us from living life as fully and successfully as we soldiered. The message seems so simple. It’s simplicity allows us to disregard it as false. Well, it has been my experience that the most simple truths are usually the ones we fail to remember at those critical moments when we need them. Wolf Walker’s message reminded us that by simply acknowledging the pain, accepting it, and becoming owner to it, we no longer serve it.

Wolf Walker joined us in Telluride and shared in the awesome experience of viewing and sharing the film with hundreds of eager viewers. Away from the crowds, however, he took a moment to provide Tom and I with a gift and, as fate would have it, another lesson. He provided me a warrior choker. The choker he made me was trimmed in red. He explained that red was a unifying color. Humans bleed red. Animals bleed red. The earth bleeds red. He wanted me to remind me that I am part of everything that makes this world and that I am part of the “mystery” he taught us about on our trek. It was a beautiful and gracious gesture that allowed me to understand that when I see red–cliched, I know– I should use that as an opportunity to remind myself that I am a valuable member of this world and that to be the person I want to be, I need to stay connected. That’s the thing about anger–it’s sole objective is to separate and destroy with extreme prejudice. We who struggle with it are hard-wired to default to it. I wish I could just cut the fuse that leads to the powder keg, but I can’t. In fact, there would be no challenge in that. The challenge Wolf Walker created was for me to remember that I am part of something greater than myself. By extension, I have a responsibility to expose those I meet to the idea that we are joined. Remembering I am part of world in which I am connected overwhelms the separation anger tries to create.

I plan on blogging regularly again and will share future developments and reaction to Almost Sunrise along with other plans Tom and I have to help Veterans and their families. Next week, we’ll be in New York for the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. I hope the audiences there are as gracious and enthusiastic as the wonderful people in Telluride. Check out additional info on the documentary and what we’re doing next by going to www.sunrisedocumentary.com

Until then, consider this:

“The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes of mind.”

 

So, we’ll talk soon. Feel free to re-read some of the blogs😉 We have a lot of catching up to do. Until then, we’ll see you on the new trail.

 

-Anthony

 

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Catching Up With the Documentary Crew and An Exciting Update!

Believe it or not, we are quickly approaching the 1 year anniversary of Tom and I leaving on Veterans Trek. We’ve been home, now, for 5 and a half months, which is a little longer than we were gone walking. Every day, I find myself thinking about the people, towns, and experiences of the trek. I am big enough to say that I miss it every day. I am also aware that I can never fully repay those who did so much for us as we made our way across vast expanses of the unknown.

There are those of you we met on the trek in a “passing” sense. By that I mean you honked and waved and showed your support. Then, there were those we met in a more intimate sense. You opened up your homes to us, shared conversation with us, and made us feel like we were part of your family. I think about you all very often and find myself wondering what you’re up to. If you think I’ve forgotten you or that our time together was too short for me to remember, you’re wrong. I remember you and hope to see you all again someday. I feel that no matter what happens in my life, I will remember each of you and how much you helped me become a whole person again. If you’re ever around Milwaukee, please reach out. 

The past few days, the documentary crew has been back in Wisconsin. They’ve been filming  “where are they now” type stuff–what lessons that we learned on the trek are still active in our lives, how are our families, what’s next–stuff like that. Needless to say, it has been great to see them. Both Tom and I recognize the power of documentary film and we feel so incredibly fortunate that they’ve applied their skills and talents to tell the story of Veterans and our state of affairs post Iraq and Afghanistan service. Remember, this film isn’t just about two guys with epic beards walking into the unknown. It discusses the unknown of what it is like for Veterans coming home–something only a small percentage of families in this country really know anything about. Someday soon, I’d like to open this blog up to them to describe their experience with us. But, for now, I’m sure they’re busy editing and producing what promises to be a very powerful film. Plus, there is something about filmmakers not wanting to be anywhere but behind the lens…

The past few days have reawakened my desire to write regularly on this forum to continue sharing the trials and tribulations of reintegration and the experience of Veterans Trek. I commit to posting at least once a week from now on with updates on what is happening with me, Tom, and Veterans Trek.

One thing that’s pretty cool is we have a new website that we’re rolling out. It’ll be found at www.veteranstrek.org If you go, sign up for our mailing list so you know when blogs are posted and get the most up to date info and what’s happening. For now, please continue to check regularly on our Facebook page for all there is to know about Veterans Trek.

One of the filmmakers riding on a train with my daughter this weekend.

One of the filmmakers riding on a train with my daughter this weekend.

Filming me and Madeline riding on the carousel this weekend.

Filming me and Madeline riding on the carousel this weekend.

 

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Almost Sunrise

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Over the last few weeks, you’ve seen the Kickstarter campaign for Almost Sunrise. If you haven’t, please do check it out here before reading farther: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1923228261/almost-sunrise-a-documentary-in-production

Pretty cool, right?

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Outside the Air Force Academy. Please check out http://www.sunrisedocumentary.com

I wanted to spend this time discussing an element of the trek that we could never really talk about. What it was like with them and why Tom and I are so grateful to have had their involvement.

On our walk from Milwaukee to Los Angeles, I used this blog to describe to you our experiences, our struggles, and, most importantly, how Tom and I were changing. How could I describe the changes that were occurring in such a way that every person–Veteran or not–could understand the importance of what was happening? It was very important to me that people who could not be with us physically could experience the trip with us.

Unique to our trek was one, very key element: A documentary crew was there–filming–during the highs and lows. A documentary crew was there when we wanted them there and when we needed our space. A documentary crew was there capturing, in ways our words could not convey, how our trek was changing us and those we met. It is a tremendous Post Script to the story we’ve told and shared.

Having the crew with us was, quite honestly, a tremendous experience. It was tremendous not in that they were making a film about us, but in that they were dedicating their time and efforts and talents to create a message to help Veterans and their families. Veterans who suffer in silence. Veterans who have honorably done their duty and find themselves misunderstood and misrepresented by the very people, agencies, and government who swore to serve them as wholly and vigorously as they, the Veteran, had served. Families who have lost their sons and daughters to a more dangerous foe than the insurgents’ improvised devices–the Veterans own hand. Families whose sons and daughters returned to find their lives so influenced by Iraq and Afghanistan that their own living rooms became an extension of those war torn hell holes.

The crew followed Tom and I across the whole trip, interviewing the people we met, filming the changing seasons and landscapes and obstacles in our way, and learning for themselves how to tell the tale of two Veterans that are not extraordinary in the issues that they have, but are in how we chose to heal ourselves. I do not think–and never have–of Tom or myself as extraordinary. We’re really not. We both got to a point where we said and thought, “Enough is enough. I’m too tired for this anymore.”

So we walked across the country. It’s weird how that exhaustion manifested itself into desperation and then into action. And then into a film.

The documentary crew that found its way to us so often–Michael, Marty, Gideon, Clar, and Claire–recorded that action and the true impact it was having. People feel that Tom and I changed because we had some experiences and then changes just happened. This is far from the case. The changes we experienced–the clarity, the resolve, the maturation of understanding–did not occur overnight, by accident, or on our own. It was generous families and people that invited us in to stay with them and helped us break down our lack of trust in people and society. It was the long miles that taunted us and tore our feet apart, but still encouraged us with every one left behind. It was the ability to focus and be tremendously honest and vulnerable that allowed our true selves to rise back up from the forced hiatus we took from life while dealing with the inner-fallout of war..

They filmed it.

When my daughter, who turned 2 years old while Tom and I were in the Mojave, sees the film as an adult, she will know exactly why she was raised the way she was. When Mike Ulanski’s kids grow up, they’ll know their father and mother and their own childhood differently. When the viewers see the generosity of Charles Black and Roy and Tina House, they will feel grateful that good people still exist. When they see the enthusiasm of some of the communities we walked through, they’ll feel proud of their neighbors. When they see and hear the faces and voices of the families whose sons and nephews and loved ones have committed suicide they will be outraged, horrified, and heart broken. When people see the dedication of Veterans helping Veterans, they will feel content.

But on that last one their reactions are misplaced. This film will not communicate the importance of Veterans helping Veterans. It will show the love and respect we Veterans have for one another. But its “care” message, if you will, will not be how Veterans should be relying on Veterans. It will be how it is all of our responsibility, regardless of Veteran or non-Veteran status, to fix just what in the hell is going on. How when we go to war, the bottom line budget projections on war do not communicate the cost of the human soul and the family loss. Our leadership uses the budget for war as a competitive advantage. They sell us on the savings and they sell us on the bullshit. Let’s be real here, OK? When we go to war, two sides compete. They battle and fight. They utilize propaganda and sabotage. They try to endear themselves to the populace (win hearts and minds). They use battle tested tactics and cutting edge technology to gain the upper hand. And then they vote to determine which side won and if they get to send our citizens into war in all of our names. They explain why soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines are going. They leave out how they’re going to help us come home.

This film does explain how we can get home. And that is, quite honestly, why our time with them was so important. Our trip home shows the trip we all are on postwar.

When we destroy a factory, city or a Nation in war, we rebuild it and install infrastructure. We rebuilt Europe. We rebuilt Japan. We’re trying to rebuild the Middle East. We spend trillions–think about that–on rebuilding economies. We spend a pittance by comparison on people.

This film shows how just a little effort, a little desire, and a lot of blisters can create a force so strong it changes lives. It shows how people on the brink of destruction invest in themselves and those around them for the most important postwar reconstruction–the self. It shows how Veterans give and give and give. It shows how some gave all.

It shows how every person has a life of purpose. And that, after all, is how we walked: With A Purpose.

Please support this project. If you’ve donated, please accept my thanks. If you haven’t, please do. If you won’t, please choose something you’re passionate about to donate to. And if you will, please, at the minimum, share this with your friends so they can make up their own minds on if they want to help.

-Anthony

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Supporting the “Battling Bastards of Bataan” and Current Veterans

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for more info on the Bataan course, check this out http://www.bataanmarch.com/r09/racemap.htm

When Tom and I began planning Veterans Trek, we had the idea that we could help ourselves heal, provide abundant awareness of issues influencing Veterans and their families, and do our best to raise as much money as we could to support a local nonprofit aimed at helping Veterans. Our allegiance was never to any individual or entity. We aimed to support the whole community–Veterans specifically– in every way we could. The monetary support we raised has helped Dryhootch address the issues it sees fit to address within its organization and, hopefully, continue to provide a needed service for Veterans in and around its locations. We’ve done our part for them and wish them the best as they carry on with their work.

But the work is not over for Tom or myself when it comes raising awareness, raising donations to assist organizations, and doing what we can to positively influence the condition of Veterans presently and in the future. We are actively working to plan future treks where we can bring Veterans and provide peer support to them, as well as bringing participating Veterans together to expand their support networks. When we separate from the military, we often leave those we served with behind as they, too, travel to different parts of the country. One of our aims is to bring these Veterans back together not only to support one another at that time, but also to be there when their comrades are in need so we can work to lower the 22 Veteran per day suicide rate, address PTSD and related issues, and provide meaningful and tangible takeaways to help create a healthy foundation moving forward.

The first opportunity to do this happened this past weekend. Tom and I teamed up with four other Veterans to participate in a one day event– the Bataan Memorial Death March Marathon. We would like to thank Delta Defense/USCCA and Black Hawk for sponsoring us and providing the travel, entry fee, lodging, food, and equipment needed to complete this event. Also, a special shout out to our newest team members–Mark, Kevin, Brandon, and Steve. They each did something they hadn’t done before in tackling this.

The first thing to say about this marathon is that it was hard. Really hard. We all carried 35 plus pounds of rice, beans, and other food to meet the minimum weight requirements for our rucks along with water and food for ourselves. All the extra food we carried was then donated to a local food pantry.

Now, some may say that walking 26.2 miles should be easy for Tom and me. While it certainly helps that we recently finished our long trek, it doesn’t provide us a “Get Out of Pain Free” card. Since our return home about 6 weeks ago, Tom and I have continued to walk, but we aren’t logging almost 20 miles a day like we did during the trek to Los Angeles. We have spent our time walking with Veterans and providing what support we can while trying to plan future treks to assist other Veterans. Still, our bodies have adapted to life off the road. My legs and hips and arms and back have been supporting a playful 2 year old more than a ruck lately. Our eyes have been fixed on friends and family more than the vast expanse of the miles ahead. Our minds have been relaxed and able to recuperate rather than opened for exploration. And our feet that grew hard like an old sponge removed from the dish water for a week have softened a bit. Both Tom and I anticipated a long, painful day on the grounds of White Sands Missile Range. Well, we got it.

The Bataan Death March, as many of you probably know, was a grueling, tortuous, and evil time for the captured US and Filipino service men in the custody of their Japanese captors during World War 2. Not only were death tolls high due to disease, illness, beatings, executions, and lack of medical care, but many men died after the march when Allied forces, unknowingly, bombed and attacked locations and ships where survivors were. All told, 100’s of Americans and 1,000s of Filipinos died at the hands of their captors on the walk. The annual marathon brings together Veterans, current US and foreign military participants, civilians, and supporters to remember the men who died and survived that brutal time and provide support to today’s Veterans. We were fortunate to meet 3 survivors of the Bataan Death March in New Mexico this past weekend. They are amazing men and we all owe, regardless of political persuasion or any other factor, a great deal of gratitude for these men and what they endured on our Nation’s behalf.

Our group made our way to New Mexico to participate in the marathon to not only show support for the Bataan survivors and Veterans, but also to push and challenge ourselves. We all anticipated the varying challenges we would face and all members of our group, outside of Tom and I, had never walked 26.2 miles in one day before. Tom and I did our best to provide advice prior to the walk to not only increase the chances of success, but also instill the confidence required to attempt something like this. The thing is, Veterans don’t want for confidence when challenged, so that was something that was quite easy to achieve.

Rather than spend a lot of time describing to you the conditions, I will be brief. It was hot, dry, dusty, windy, and the elevation was a challenge. The elevation was only about 1 mile up, but we live at an elevation of about 800 feet above sea level, so it did provide a challenge. Our legs began to ache on the constant climb stretch. Our motivation was tested on the undulating hill stretch. Our shoulders began to sag as the weight supported by them mixed with time. All our bodies felt the loss of support from a mile straight of 1 foot deep loose sand that taunted us as we plodded through it at the 21st mile. We all seemed to feel the pain of every person we saw as we limped and winced and slogged along in time like a grotesque chorus line. And all resolve was tested as we neared the end and every corner we rounded took us down another stretch away from the finish line when every thought was that “this is the last turn.”

As I neared the end, I began to reflect on the end of the walk to LA. When we finished in LA, we were stormed by reporters and stabbed at by microphones and camera lenses from every direction. Had I been in a white robe, an onlooker may have thought it was some nouveau adaptation and performance of the assassination of Julius Caeser, a critique on media, perhaps. Well, maybe not, but I certainly felt like I had no route of escape. Our constant 5 month mission was over. Just like that. One step it was still on. The next step it was over. It was such a hurried moment that true appreciation for it was impossible for me. But at Bataan, I found myself thinking of it. I began to think of the people who were there to provide us that list bit of motivation. Some of those people, like Charles, Tina, JT, Roy, and Emily had provided food, a place to stay, and other needs along the trip. Others simply found themselves caught in the wave of activity that swept down on the pier and were curious about what was happening. As I neared the end of Bataan, I, for the first time, truly began to think of the end of Milwaukee to LA. One ending brought on by another.

One ending brought on by another was what I had hoped to achieve from Veterans Trek. I wanted the end of Veterans Trek to mark the end of the my time dealing with my own issues, or at least the end of past struggles. I wanted that end to bring on another. That is what doing things like these treks does–it brings out of you the feeling you desire to achieve. It isn’t so much an accomplishment. It is fulfilling your focus.

When you walk like this, there is pain and discomfort. You wonder why you are doing this to yourself. That thought was something I thought while in Iraq. Why did I volunteer for this? What was I thinking? I could have just waited to be deployed, but I had to go ahead and volunteer. Now my family is home worrying about me and on and on and on. Well, in the same way, questions begin to find their way through the cracks of your consciousness while you trek–questions you now have the time and desire to ponder and answer. One of the guys who walked with us remarked that during a portion of Bataan, he began to experience “profound” realizations about his life– at 48 years old. I remember being struck by his use of the word profound and was inspired by his enthusiasm. I, like the other team members, was so happy and proud for his accomplishment. Another team member talked about the most influential part of the day being spent talking with Tom as they traversed the cruel, windy mountain area. The discussions they had helped him understand somethings and give him actionable things to work on. By the end of the marathon, these two were at the end of the time before knowing these things about themselves. One end brought an end to the other.

When I asked them all what they enjoyed most, I heard “camaraderie” and “the challenge” listed among others. The beauty part of this weekend for me was that we all finished our walk. We all achieved something that most hadn’t. But most importantly, we had the chance to experience this together and share in the accomplishments that each had. I feel incredibly lucky to have had the chance to get to know each of the others guys better–I feel like after 5 months of constant companionship, I know Tom pretty well. I’m pretty sure I could accurately order him food at a restaurant of any type. I’ve been married almost 10 years and I still don’t think I could do that for my wife–weird, I know.

This experience also brought back the realization I need to get back to these blog posts. Hopefully it’ll occur more regularly. What I would like is for Veterans or family members to reach out to me at veteranstrek@gmail.com if they’re willing to write about their experiences and feelings about the state of affairs for Veterans. I want to give as many Veterans a chance to be heard as possible and would feel privileged for the chance to post your contributions here.

So, again, a special thanks to Delta Defense/USCCA and Black Hawk for their support. And, special recognition to Mark, Steve, Kevin, and Brandon for spending their weekend not on the NCAA, but more importantly bringing about a new motivation for each of themselves and achieving a goal.

With that, stay tuned as more posts will follow and, hopefully, some will be from you.

Anthony

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What It Was Like To Finish

Since finishing our trek, the question we’ve been asked most (beyond how our feet are doing) has been what was it like to finish. Were we/ are we happy to be done?

These are difficult questions to answer even after four weeks to think about it. The answers won’t happen tonight.

Finishing was a blur. As we approached the end, I began to think about what was ending, not what was beginning. Often, during the walk, I found myself thinking about the end and how excited I was to go home and start my life post-trek. The lessons I’d learned from myself and others, the experiences I wanted to share, the potential for the future, these were the things I focused on. These were the thoughts I visualized myself having as I finished, appreciating the journey for what it was. I didn’t see those things. I saw my memories of the trip. I felt something completely different than I thought I would.. I felt like I was losing something.

I know taking part in something like this trek breeds bitter-sweet feelings when it ends. Feeling this way is not uncommon. But it was surprising to me how much I wished it could continue and not be ending. Certainly, the physical aspects of the walk were less than thrilling sometimes, especially when mixed with foul weather. I do not miss walking for hours and hours. I miss the people, the places, the conversations. I miss the places I saw and the generous people that made it all possible.  I found myself just blocks from the end and I was missing it already. It surprised me how much I wished the ocean would have been a few more miles away, how the final day could have been backed up a bit. While everyday on the trek I found myself wishing I could be with my daughter, wife, and friends, I found myself at that moment wanting more time.

The first sensation I realized when entering the pier was that we were walking on wood. Concrete was over. Blacktop was a memory. Gravel that sliced through the soles of our shoes like razor blades, leaving our feet blistered and sore, was left behind. The cornfields, the flat land, the mountains, the desert were all gone. In front was the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. And there were no more miles to walk. I remember how fast Tom was walking. Very fast. I remember having to extend my stride to keep up. He hit a gear that I don’t quite recall either of us pushing towards as we finished a day. Most days, our pace at the end slowed. On this day, the final day, it was the fastest it had been for the day. We looked for the “End of Route 66” sign that marked our end point. As we approached, I saw my wife and daughter, my sister, friends Tom and I had made along the way, and those who wished to meet us at the end cheering us on. I’m not easily embarrassed, but I do find myself nervous and embarrassed when people applaud for me or cheer. I never know how to react.

Before I could react, before it felt like I could breathe. the media came. We were rushed by all the LA media who were there to cover our walk. Reporters surrounded us and fired off questions as fast as they could be answered. Strangers, curious over the spectacle, began to crowd around. After several interviews, even more pictures, and a water cannon salute, Veterans Trek from Milwaukee to Los Angeles was done. Our trek and all it was was over. It was difficult at times to remember that when we started it would end. There were many days where California, hell the next block, seemed too far off to walk to. But we were done now. And now it takes us to the lessons learned and what is next. That comes in the next installment. So stay tuned. It won’t be such a long time until the next blog.

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Getting Near The End

We find ourselves just 12 short days from finishing what has been an extraordinary walk. On February 1st, we will find ourselves at the shore of the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, CA, no longer looking West for our future. Rather, we will turn around, begin our drive home, and look East for progress for the first time in five months.

Lately, many people have broached the topic of “the end.” How do we feel? What do we think? How do we look at this trek in the context of a life achievement? Many questions about the trek and how it has influenced us. Unfortunately, there are few answers at this point to some reasonable questions.

When I think about where I am at now as opposed to five months ago, I feel markedly better than before. Physically, mentally, and emotionally I feel in a much better place. That said, I recognize there is still much work to be done to achieve the personal goals I set for myself. The excitement of nearing the end does not cloud the reality I see in front of me. There will be difficulties in coming home. I made the connections before we left that preparing for this walk was very similar to preparing for a deployment. In the same way, coming home will be like returning from a deployment. My concerns do not rest in adjusting from combat. Rather, my concerns stem from adjusting to having lived again for the first time in several years. The people in my life–friends and family and coworkers–have known me as a different me. Who I was prior to Iraq changed dramatically upon my return. There was a learning curve that went up, exponentially, every day with me. Neither I nor those in my life anticipated the ride that coming home from Iraq presented. I don’t know what they expect now, either.

The experience of coming home now is something I have no experience with. Yes, I’ve come home from two deployments and made successful and not so successful transitions. This, however, is completely different. And it makes me nervous. How will I be received? Will there be an expectation that I’m “all better” now? Will there be an expectation that all those things that bothered me before are now gone? I can say that while I feel as though I am in a much better place, I also understand that having completed this trek and moving beyond it is still on ongoing process. The walk will be over, the work is not.

Before the walk, I wondered if I’d ever get over the issues that influence my daily life. Would I ever be able to not be angry? Would I get to a point where I could feel appropriate emotions at appropriate times? I’ve come to see that I can get beyond those things, I can experience real emotions outside those negative anchors that weighed me down for so long. But, the same vigilance required to make certain you and your buddies are safe in combat is required for your own self care. Feeling confident that you’re on the right path is good. Feeling as though that being on the right path at the right time is all it takes is akin to the same complacency that you consciously avoid in combat to keep yourself alive. I recognize that the progress I’ve made can erode just as quickly if I feel I’ve accomplished my mission and begin to get too confident.

I have been telling people lately that the excitement I feel for nearing the end is tempered by the reality that the end is near. It seems as though it was just days ago that we found ourselves walking across the wind swept acres of Nebraska or the rolling, green cornfields of Iowa. Now, we are in the dusty, dry Southern California landscape. Just beyond the mountains in front of us will be the chaos of Los Angeles and the beauty of the coast. To see it in the manner we will will certainly feel good. I still don’t–in any way–feel a sense of accomplishment having come the distance we have. But I do feel a sense of accomplishment in having taken the chance to re-experience life again, to put myself back out in the world and try, again, to meet the expectations I have for myself. For far too long, I let myself feel as though the anger, disappointment, sadness, and frustration were earned from the misdeeds of the past. This walk has not been any sort of penance for me. It has, however, been a chance to say that those feelings do not need to last, are not deserved, and can serve as the starting point to begin again. It isn’t often that people would say to build a foundation for change on the negative. I can say that despite the hardships those feelings placed on me and those around me, they will serve as the benchmark for progress moving forward–they just don’t have to be the standard by which my days operate.

At some point, I’ll finally be able to articulate what this trek is/was/will be. For now, there are still too many miles ahead to write about the end in the present. But, presently, I find myself looking at the end as a beginning. And that is the most positive thing I’ve said in almost 10 years.

See you on the trail,

Anthony and Tom

 

 

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Start of the 4th quarter. #nebraska fans are leavong already. Cey sad tears #huskers. Their bitter. 
#badgers #victory
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