Thomas served in both the Danish Army and Airforce for 20 years. He deployed 5 times, 4 of them to Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, he provided flightline security at Kandahar airfield in 2007; was part of a construction team in camp Tombstone, Helmland province in 2008; served at Aerial Port Services in Camp Bastion in 2012 and finally, as the Air Movement Officer at Kandahar Airfield in 2013-2014.
In short, he was in the deadliest regions of Afghanistan at the peak of the violence.
“In therapy for PTSD I discovered that my issues started on the first tour to Afghanistan. All of my shifts were on the flightline – there were no bunkers or armored vehicles to take cover in during the frequent mortar and rocket attacks. There were some very close impacts. You know this when your teeth rattle and you hear shrapnel whistling through the air around you.”
“If that wasn’t enough, I also worked on the casualty flightline, giving CPR and carrying stretchers from the helicopters used to ferry in the wounded. Many of the injured were civilians but what haunts me the worst were the children who had been blown up – this became the worst when some years later, I became a father.”
“Of course, there are many more pages to this book – I just want the time walking the Camino to reflect on my situation and perhaps find a way to accept the things that I have witnessed and the awful things that have happened.”
Robert served 21 years in the Polish army, from 1991 to 2012. He deployed three times as part of the infantry. The infantry are the guys who do the non-glamourous dirty jobs. They wade into fights without hesitation knowing that there is no promise of a tomorrow.
His missions included Kosovo-Mitrowica in 2000 (17 months), Dywanija Iraq in 2005 (19 months), and finally, Ghazni Afghanistan in 2010 (19 months).
Robert tells a small part of his story.
“I was a platoon commander for all three deployments, a leadership role that put me in charge of over 40 infantry soldiers.”
“Being in the infantry meant that our job was combat – keeping my platoon alive was a priority, but it had to be balanced with seeking and engaging the enemy.”
“My most difficult deployment was Afgnaistan. We patrolled nearly every day in a province that was almost completely controlled by the taliban. If I wasn’t outside of the wire on a patrol, we stood ready just inside the gate as a Quick Reaction Force – ready to launch instantly if another mission needed help. Sometimes the waiting is the most intolerable part.”
“My platoon was lucky, we didn’t take any casualties. Others weren’t so lucky.”
“Forever imprinted in my memory was the day we were on patrol when the platoon behind mine was blown up. Exactly where we had been only moments before.”
“After Afghanistan I decided to retire, I simply couldn’t take it anymore. Today I know I did it under the influence of emotions and my mental fatigue.”
“I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I stopped sleeping normally, to this day I still have problems with it.”
“In addition to the lack of sleep, I became hyperactive and hypervigilant. locked myself in the house and started drinking a lot. My family supported me but I was hanging on by a very thin thread.”
“I still have problems with concentration, I am nervous and I don’t mix with people I don’t know, I only feel able to relax in the company of soldiers.”
“In addition, my son was diagnosed with diabetes 3 years ago, he was 13 years old. I need to be strong for him and for the rest of my family – I need to walk these nightmares off.”
“I am very happy with this trip, I will look for God there to help me and my family.”
As the start of the spring 2020 Camino approaches – its time for me to find a Veteran to dedicate my walk to. Since I started this dedication several years ago, its become a key part of our journey.
The Veteran becomes a part of our group – I wear the dogtags or bracelet and carry the story. Every evening we raise our glasses in a toast to our invisible companion. We all take pause to think about those brothers and sisters who have passed to the other side. It brings everything into focus. A constant reminder of those who gave everything, what we ourselves were prepared to give.
Upon arrival in Santiago, I have the Compostella written with the name of the soldier who has silently walked beside me and it will go to the family when I return the dogtags or bracelet that I wore.
If you have a soldier who gave it all – or know of a family who would be interested in this dedication please email a response to this post for board consideration.
Randi is a 10 year Norwegian veteran. She served three tours in Lebanon as a radio operator (communications specialist), in the Balkans in 1992 as part of the UN Protection Force as movement control and driver. In 1996 as part of the Nato Implementation Force, and with the Stabilization Force in 1996-1997.
Much of Randi’s service was as an operation assistant and a driver for the CO. She was on the road quite a bit and shot at several times. She was evacuated from Sarajevo. She has spent time sitting in a bunker. In her words, she says she has “seen lots”. Randi struggles with the details of these conversations.
In addition to her combat exposure, Randi felt the stress of being one of few women in the Norwegian military in the mid-1980s. She found it difficult to earn respect. She also was restricted in certain opportunities as a result of some officers not yet accepting females in the military.
After the military Randi spent time helping others, in part to avoid dealing with her own problems. She has volunteered with Team Rubicon and for years she answered a helpline for veterans organizations, for which she is certified. She does not socialize with others much and stated that her volunteering is the only thing that gets her out of the house.
Years after her service, Randi began to admit to herself that something was wrong, with her mind, her thinking. She said that her head just did not seem right. She became ill and was ultimately diagnosed with type I diabetes. Randi thought this was the answer to her symptoms. However, as the medications did not ease all of her symptoms, she finally admitted to herself that she was dealing with PTSD.
Randi has difficulty admitting to this. To her, she was not physically injured and has seen others who suffered much more than she had, in her eyes. In her work with the helpline she has also heard stories from others going through significant suffering and hard times. However, she is finally beginning to come to terms with this and beginning to fight her own battle.
According to Randi, there is not much in the way of psychological help in Norway for veterans.
Ward retired from the Canadian army in 2017, after seven tours and 37 years of service.
Ward tells his own story. He is open, honest. As with most combat veterans, his tale is heroic and heartbreaking. For those of us who have never served or have not had someone close to us serve, it is sometimes hard to fully understand. As you read about Ward’s experiences, I challege you to place yourself in his shoes, to empathize with a combat veteran’s situation.
I have been deployed seven times. Three were United Nations peacekeeping missions and four were NATO missions. The rules of engagement for the peacekeeping missions in Cyprus and Croatia were very strict and, at times, confusing. As a Section leader on both tours, it was demanding. But also a good learning experience. The first tour, Cyprus, was not overly dangerous as it had been quiet there for some time. Croatia was more active with mortars and small arms fire directed at us. Although these peacekeeping missions were not as outright dangerous, what hit me the hardest was traveling through villages that had been ethnically cleansed. There was still food on tables, but no sign of people anywhere. Fields were covered with slaughtered pets and livestock. The images stick with me. It is something my mind’s eye often pulls into focus, as much as I would like to forget.
My other tours were in Bosnia, Afghanistan (3 times) and, finally, Israel. As an Infantry Warrant Officer in Afghanistan I did some special training to become part of a counter IED team that included an EOD team – that put us up close and personal with really big bombs. Our job was to detect and exploit IEDs in order to gather information about trends, signatures of the bomb makers, and any other information we could find. We ran from dawn to dusk, constantly. The effects of the explosions and the relentless schedule left a mark on me in ways I still cannot fully comprehend.
I believe the first rumblings I had that these experiences were affecting me started subtly in Croatia. Then, after Afghanistan, it took ahold of me. But I was too proud to admit it. I just soldiered on. It was all I knew to do.
One more short tour in Israel to make it through before retirement. It was a different type of deployment: no weapons, no uniforms. Just a go bag. We knew we were being watched everywhere we went, by both the Israelis and HAMAS.
When I returned home I knew there was something seriously wrong with my state of mind. I withdrew from activities and eventually just stopped leaving the sanctuary of my home. I could only handle the company of myself and my dogs. I was wired too tightly to be around others.
I spent two years isolated from the world. It took me that long to realize I needed help.
I was diagnosed with severe PTSD. I began therapy. Recently I attended some group courses and seminars with other veterans. I am beginning to slowly start socializing again and now have a small group of friends. But I still struggle with going outside my circle of comfort. It is still hard to accept some aspects of my experiences and the mark they left on me, but at least I now know how to approach it.
I believe Veterans on the Camino is a step forward in my recovery and I am so thankful for being selected for this opportunity.
Brian served his country for 20 years in the US Army, retiring in 2007. During his service he deployed to Iraq three times. Each time he participated in engagements that continue to haunt him to this day: IEDs, being in the direct line of fire, losing friends and brothers.
Brian’s job in the military was transportation/logistics, placing him “outside the wire” in the midst of dangerous territory on almost a daily basis. He supported the 1st armored division from Kuwait to Iraq when they were searching for Saddam Hussein. He also spent time escorting third country nationals throughout Iraq (Al-Asaad). These areas were dangerous to say the least. So much so that he often found himself having to backtrack to “round up” whomever he was escorting as they did not want to enter the territories, particularly Fallujah. Brian also spent a considerable amount of time escorting American civilians to deliver mail throughout Iraq. He ran two exhausting convoys each day, in daylight and rush hour. Prime time for enemy attacks.
Brian was exposed to multiple IED explosions during his tours. On his very first mission in Iraq, Brian was separated from the convoy after enemy contact. He was out of his truck and had shots fired at and around him. His truck ended up in unfamiliar areas, clearly increasing the risks. If that wasn’t enough, rocks and bottles were thrown at them by Iraqi civilians. He continues to have anxiety while driving. He suffers with panic attacks, especially if he feels he is lost or is uncertain about where he is going. This continues today, 13 years later.
Due to multiple IED explosions, particularly during his second tour, Brian suffers from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). He continues to struggle with difficulties in his memory, concentration, reading and writing. He has trouble retaining information. Despite these obstacles, after retiring Brian returned to school and ultimately earned his Bachelor’s degree. This was no small feat. Brian’s school path was certainly not without struggle. He initially failed his classes and required cognitive rehabilitation in order to learn how to learn again, due to his symptoms of TBI. Today, Brian continues to push through these obstacles and is working towards his Masters in Outdoor Adventure Expedition Leadership. He only has his thesis to complete to earn his degree. However, writing and focusing continue to be a struggle that he battles daily. Nonetheless, Brian continues to fight his battles and is determined to complete the Masters program.
Brian began participating in therapy shortly after his retirement, in 2008. He continues to attend both individual and group sessions with other veterans. He has good days. But he also has bad days when he does not want to get out of bed. His kids, 5 of them between the ages of 14 and 24, are his inspiration.
Brian is hopeful that this journey will help him to continue to overcome the effects of his experiences. As evident from his story, he is a fighter and looks for ways to continue to improve. Brian has been interested in walking the Camino for a few years and has been aware of the potential healing such a journey could bring. Welcome Brian. We hope the Camino brings you further along in your journey to peace and recovery.
Introducing Gavin. A Vietnam veteran from Australia and the first Vietnam veteran to participate in a VOC journey.
Gavin emigrated to Australia and was welcomed by being almost immediately scripted into the Australian military. He was deployed to Vietnam where he proudly served his country as a section leader, equivalent to a squad leader in the US military.
Gavin’s time in Vietnam was difficult at best. He spent six to eight weeks at a time patrolling the jungle, setting ambushes and searching for Vietcong. He would return for a week or so from the jungle, then be sent back out for another six to eight week stint. Gavin witnessed and participated in combat actions that are forever ingrained in his memories.
Upon returning home to Australia, Gavin was met with similar public sentiment as our veterans experienced in the US. He, along with the other soldiers returning home, were required to wear civilian clothing and fly on commercial airlines in the middle of the night in order to avoid being seen. Unfortunately, word of the soldiers’ return did not remain secret. He was met by protestors at the airport throwing things at them and jeering at them. This remains one of the difficult memories that he has worked to overcome throughout his life.
Gavin then began trying to process what he had been through in Vietnam and find his place back home. He recalls that it was nearly impossible to “fit in” as a soldier. Not only mentally and emotionally, but in appearance as well. The time was the early 1970s and “hippie” was the fashion. Soldiers stood out to all with military haircuts. There was no way to blend in back at home. And at a time when he felt scorned because he served his country, Gavin wanted to blend in.
To further complicate his situation, the social climate at that time did not recognize the difficulties a soldier had after service. There was no thought or discussion of counseling. He had no one to help him process what he had experienced in Vietnam.
Gavin struggled to adjust to regular life and work after the military. He floated around for awhile, a wanderer. However, Gavin was, and still is, a fighter with a positive perspective on life. Luckily for him, there were several members of the 7th Battalion who lived nearby. The men became a close knit group and supported one another in their transition. Today, more than 40 years later, they continue to periodically get together.
Gavin continues to have a positive perspective and is full of life. He strives to improve himself and leave a positive mark on those around him. Despite his experiences and struggles, he makes it a point to be upbeat. Gavin is a survivor. He will take this 500 mile trek to continue to process his experiences, a lifelong endeavor.
Krista is a US Army veteran. She was deployed to Saudi Arabia and Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. Her specialty was as an Arabic linguist leading to her service as an interrogator as well as an interpreter. Krista’s time in the Middle East was fraught with enemy engagement, including a barrage of scud missile attacks and the constant fear of chemical warfare. The effects of such experiences hardly need explanation.
However, for Krista there was another stressor during her service in the Middle East. As an interpreter, Krista dealt directly with Saudi men. The time was the early 1990s. Back then the Middle East was even more male dominated than it is today. With constant threats and insults, Krista was routinely reminded of that fact. They spoke to her in Arabic so her colleagues did not understand or realize what was happening. Krista kept it all to herself. She became isolated and was essentially alone.
Upon leaving the military, Krista tried to leave those memories and fears behind her. She tried to maintain an image of the perfect life. She returned to school but continued to isolate herself from others. At the same time she was trying to maintain a marriage to another veteran suffering with PTSD, also undiagnosed at that time. Krista focused all of her energy on school and her marriage. It was her way of avoiding her past.
Ultimately, Krista and her husband divorced. She raised her two daughters on her own. The time on her own left space for her untended wounds, which came back with a fury. Nightmares, panic attacks and anxiety forced her into more isolation and a downward spiral. Krista realized that she was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress – and she needed to deal with it. She had two children to raise and a life that she wanted to live. She finally began to seek treatment. In addition to her PTSD, Krista was also diagnosed with cancer and, shortly thereafter, Gulf War Illness, causing her to feel fatigued and generally sick.
But Krista is a fighter. She is working on her recovery and dealing with PTSD. After retiring from a teaching career, Krista returned to school for another Masters in Outdoor Leadership. She finds that being in nature helps her to deal with her problems better, both physically and mentally. She continues to work on herself and her recovery. While she has a ways to go, she knows her triggers and her reactions, and has made significant progress. She hopes to make further strides walking the Camino this Spring.