How Nominating A Veteran Changed My Civilian Life

For years, I tried to understand.

I had interviewed every type of veteran — from World War II veterans who were shot down over Europe and forced into captivity, to combat medics who received Purple Hearts in Vietnam, to recently returned veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

They all told me the same thing: as a civilian – especially as a young journalist – you just can’t understand.

I watched as a 92-year-old man’s hands shook violently as he described what it was like to be marched by Nazis more than 600 miles over 86 days through Poland and Germany. It was the first time since the war he’d discussed the matter.

“It just ties you up in knots, and I don’t know why,” he said, a lump in his throat.

Said another veteran who was part of the same prisoner march, often referred to as the Black March of 1944, “You can’t be a combat soldier and then on top of that be a prisoner of war without it changing your life. You just cannot come back the same person that went in.”

I heard the words, but I couldn’t understand.

But something did stick – both of those men could talk about their experiences in each other’s company a little easier. They understood each other. They were there. Together they broke through more than 70 years of silence eating at them.

I saw the same thing a few months later when I covered a veterans’ rock climbing event. There I met two veterans who would change my life for the better — Mark and Kurt.

Together this group of veterans were helping themselves by being together. Kurt looked me in the eye and said being around other veterans in the outdoors is better than 10 weeks in “the head shrinker’s office.”

“I lost my brain,” Kurt said about how it felt to leave the military and be surrounded by civilian strangers.

Mark said he’d thought long and hard about killing himself when he lost his leg from injuries sustained while in the military. Then he found rock climbing and he told me the idea of it changed his outlook on life completely.

“I, too, want to show people that anybody with a (disability) can do anything they can set their mind to. That, out of anything, is my main purpose, my main goal right now.”

The experience warmed me, but only for a while. I realized there were so many more veterans in the shadows. Those who were hurting and could be helped by such experiences. I realized that the pen and paper couldn’t reach them and I wanted to make a real difference in people’s lives.

When I took the Storytelling Coordinator position at No Barriers, I immediately reached out to Kurt and Mark. I nominated both of them to climb Gannett Peak with Warriors to Summits. Mark was accepted into the program, and Kurt was accepted into another No Barriers Warriors expedition.

I watched both of them through their journeys. Mark and I stayed in contact and I could tell the experience was changing him. His smile was brighter, his waist was smaller and his overall demeanor was lifted.

We met up at the No Barriers Summit in Park City. I told him I was so glad he was accepted into the program. He said even with only one training under his belt that being in a team of veterans again had already changed his life. And then he did something that surprised me — he thanked me for nominating him.

“That was a God thing,” he said.

“It was a friend thing, too,” I said.

And so I watched as Mark kept climbing. When I saw the photos of him hiking toward Gannett Peak it made my day. When we learned that the team couldn’t climb any higher, it put a lump in my throat.

Now I’m proud to say that I was a small part of helping change his life. I spent so much time as a journalist trying to understand, but never being able to. I realize now that I can impact veterans’ lives by telling them that while I won’t ever understand, there are people who do. Those people are the veterans, teammates and guides with No Barriers Warriors and Warriors to Summits.

I hope you’ll find a veteran with a disability in your life and nominate them. It’ll change you, too.

#NominateAVet Today