After an extraordinarily long break due to global pandemics and imminent WW3 (Thanks Putin…) The directors of VOC have determined that we can send the current Veteran group on the Camino this Fall. Better yet, we will begin a new application season in order to have a group ready for a Fall 2023 Camino.
Make sure to check the website in the coming weeks for specific instructions on how to request an application and the criteria required.
Here is what you are applying for:
VOC will purchase your most critical gear for you to train in – boots and backpack
VOC will assist in what to train for and how to train
VOC covers all travel expenses
VOC provides a daily per diem to cover food and basic albergue costs
You provide the time needed – roughly 40 days
You will join a small group of other Veterans to walk the 600-mile French Camino from Saint Jean Pied du Port, France all the way to Santiago de Compostella and Finisterre, Spain. Our goal is to removes many obstacles as possible to enable you, the Veteran, to walk this ancient pilgrimage.
What this isn’t:
- A vacation – this is not a journey to be taken lightly.
- An all-expenses paid tour of Europe – living conditions are not posh. You will travel and live much as other perigrinos have done for over 1000 years.
If you feel like this is a good fit, and something that might help you “reboot” then I encourage you to submit your application!
Chasing shadows. It’s what we do every day on the Camino.
Walking ever westward our shadows are impossibly long in the morning but get shorter and shorter as the sun makes its way through the day. The body has become accustomed to the rigors of walking all day, every day. Now we pass onto the high plain known as the “meseta” – the mental crucible due to its seemingly endless straight and flat trails. Some find it dull, but this is where the mind and heart are brought to a reckoning.
We are confronted by our shadow relentlessly. It challenges us. It reminds us of our lives. It is personal and it is cruel. It points an accusing finger at us. “Where were you when that kid lost his eye in the explosion? You could have stopped him….” “Why did you this???” Why did you that???” “Why didn’t you do it???” Relentless. We continue chasing our shadow across the Meseta day after day.
We dread the mornings when the shadow is impossibly long like a gruesome specter.
After what seems like an eternity, the shadow begins to ease up. Slowly, it stops being so Damn dark. Stops being cruel. It reminds us that there have been others who have also cast shadows, who have also walked this path. We aren’t that different.
This path is ancient and this shadow is something we have all endured. Perhaps it is not so cruel after all. This is a turning point.
As we leave the Meseta we begin to realize that the shadow belongs to us. That it is of our own making. We realize the shadow is us.
VOC can be challenging to explain, to catch a well guided explanation – have a listen as Jose Mari of “El Camino People” interviews me about the program. Buen Camino and thank you for the great conversation Jose!
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.