A climber suddenly falls into a crevasse and Nick Watson dives into the snow with his ice ax. The rope goes taut and Watson, a bearded, muscled man, digs in like an anchor, and the climber is caught.
“You OK?” shouts Watson.
There is no answer from the climber down in the hole. He is unconscious or injured, perhaps bleeding.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get you out!” yells Watson anyway.
In a matter of minutes, Watson has tied off the dangling climber, slammed two stakes into the snow, and set up a five-to-one pulley system. Using his own body weight, Watson gradually hauls the injured mountaineer out of the crevasse.
Back on the surface, the unconscious climber suddenly awakes. “Wow! That really works.”
It was a simulated mountain rescue—a teaching scenario for a group of former soldiers, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, all standing in the snow.
“This is the way you save someone’s life,” says Watson.
He’s talking about basic crevasse rescue techniques, but he might as well be talking about the organization he founded, Veterans Expeditions, or VetEx, a nonprofit that takes veterans into the outdoors.
“Vets often go from a world with deep camaraderie, commitment, and excitement to a world where they are isolated, at loose ends, and bored,” Watson says in explaining the concept behind the program. Watson speaks from experience—he is a former U.S. Army Ranger—and he knows just how psychologically perilous the military experience can be: Veterans commit suicide at more than twice the rate of civilians.
Having worked as an alpine guide and a counselor in wilderness therapy programs for over a decade, Watson, 40, also believes in the healing force of nature and was convinced that a vigorous outdoor experience would be tonic for veterans, a way for them to “reconnect with fellow soldiers, get outside, and push themselves in a healthy environment.” VetEx—created with another veteran, Stacy Bare—was the outgrowth of that conviction. In its first year, 2010, VetEx took 16 veterans into the mountains for climbing; in 2011, it was over 100; in 2013, almost 300.
Things changed for me when two of my Ranger buddies killed themselves. These were guys I grew up with. I was there in seconds after they shot themselves, but there was nothing I could do.
By consciously replacing the fellowship of arms with the fellowship of the rope, VetEx hit on a novel remedy for readjustment to civilian life—a soldier by soldier, hands-on approach that larger veterans organizations like the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) couldn’t provide.
In Watson’s family, joining the military was part of the natural progression of manhood: One grandfather served in World War II, the other in Korea; his father served in Vietnam. He spent over four years in an elite Army unit, the Third Ranger Battalion, on numerous international deployments.
“I pushed myself in the military and had many intense experiences,” says Watson, “but things changed for me when two of my Ranger buddies killed themselves. These were guys I grew up with. I was there in seconds after they shot themselves, but there was nothing I could do.”
He left the Army soon afterward, but it took years for him to recover from the trauma of those deaths. He traveled around the country, worked seasonal jobs, and slowly found solace in the wild. “A therapist I was seeing at the time, a very wise woman, said something that changed my life: ‘You aren’t your experiences; you are how you process your experiences.’”
Thoughtful and passionate, with a sturdy body and three fingers missing on his right hand from an oil rig accident, Watson has been running the organization on his own since 2011, when Bare moved on to direct the Sierra Club’s veterans programs in New England and North Carolina. “We’re a grassroots organization,” says Watson. “It’s friends telling friends.” VetEx has only one paid employee—Watson—and calls on volunteers to run the outdoor “meetups” throughout Colorado.
“Our biggest challenge right now is funding,” says Watson, who relies on his partner, journalist Chris Kassar, 37, to work as VetEx’s unpaid “PR and ‘Fun’ Raising Director.” Keen shoe company and Kahtoola Snowshoes are their only equipment sponsors. “We get new vets outdoors every month, and we’re changing their lives. We don’t need a lot of funding, just enough to keep going.”
Watson, who was named a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year for 2014, along with Stacy Bare, says his goal is to get thousands of vets outdoors by 2020, training veterans to lead trips all over the country.
Stacy Bare, a former Army captain and Bronze Star recipient and VetEx co-founder, climbs Mount Rainier in Washington State. PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRIS KASSAR
“Immediate, Intense Trust”“What Veterans Expeditions does, at its core, is re-create the positive aspects of the military without all the negatives,” says Demond Mullins, 32, an Army veteran who saw combat in Iraq in 2004-2005.Meeting up with Veterans Expeditions was so important to Mullins, a professor of sociology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, that he flew across the country just to spend a couple of days climbing with fellow vets. In the snow-covered Rockies above Leadville, Colorado, they practiced technical mountaineering skills, such as moving as a roped team, self-arrest with an ice ax, crevasse rescue, crampon technique, and ascending fixed lines.Mullins has participated in more than a dozen adventures with VetEx. “On every trip I meet new vets,” he says, kneeling in the snow at 11,000 feet (3,353 meters), adjusting the carabiners on the climbing ropes for a crevasse rescue scenario. “There’s always this immediate, intense trust. We have the same point of reference. We know what it’s like to put our lives on the line for each other.”Mullins, who is built like an Olympic sprinter, loves being outdoors, “working as part of a team, relying on one another—things we all learned in the military, but [now] without the threat of violence.”Epidemic of SuicideAccording to a VA report last year, 22 veterans kill themselves every day in the U.S., double the number of suicides among nonveterans. In 2012, 349 active-duty soldiers killed themselves—more than the 295 who died in combat in Afghanistan that year. Statisticbrain.com reports that 4,487 American troops died in Iraq, about half the number of soldiers who kill themselves every year. In Afghanistan, 2,229 Americans have died; more veterans than that will kill themselves at home in the U.S. before Thanksgiving this year.
One in five veterans of Afghanistan or Iraq and a stunning 30 percent of Vietnam vets have PTSD.
The U.S. military is aware of the problem, if uncertain what to do about it. The VA has set up a crisis hotline and a website offering help through direct phone contact, online chats, and other resources, but VA hospitals are notoriously backlogged and slow to respond to veterans struggling with mental illness. Brigadier General David Harris recently wrote on the Eglin Air Force Base website that “it is important for us to re-address topics such as suicide prevention and awareness.” He encourages friends and family to be alert to the “clues and warnings” of potential suicide, such as depression, drug or alcohol abuse, impulsiveness, and reclusiveness. “When we observe our wingman appearing depressed … request help early on.”
Clearly, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans aren’t the only ones overwhelmed by despair: Almost 70 percent of suicides among veterans are by Vietnam War soldiers, 50 years old or older, a community that suffered a particularly hard return to a society that was largely hostile to the war they fought.
And suicide isn’t limited to those who saw combat. A recent Department of Defense study, citing heavy drinking and depression as root problems, found that almost 80 percent of suicides are by soldiers who did not experience combat. A 2014 report in JAMA Psychiatryrevealed that almost 20 percent of Army enlistees struggled with depression, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, or “intermittent explosive disorder”—a condition characterized by uncontrollable attacks of rage—before they joined the service.
And then there is the pervasiveness of post-traumatic stress disorder. One in five veterans of Afghanistan or Iraq and a stunning 30 percent of Vietnam vets have PTSD. Other soldiers have returned home with a traumatic brain injury (TBI), often caused by the concussive force of an improvised explosive device (IED). Unlike scars and amputations, these are the “invisible injuries” of war.
Nick Watson teaches crevasse rescue to veterans in Leadville, Colorado. PHOTOGRAPH BY CAROLINE TREADWAY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC