Veterans on the Camino is back!

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!

Buen Camino,

Brad Genereux

Chasing Shadows

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.

We begin to accept our shadows, our past, rather than chase it.

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.

Thomas P. & Ward G.

Buen Camino Max.

So here I sit in Belorado, Spain trying to find the words to describe the last eight days of walking the French Camino. I walk with an extraordinary collection of Veterans.  It seems like such a short time – eight days – but taken in the context of walking all day, finding albergues to sleep in, eating together, and taking care of each other, it feels like its been much longer.  These Veterans come from the United States, Canada, Poland and Denmark.  Such varying backgrounds, yet so much in common.  

We talk.  We talk a lot. Sharing things that are mundane, and sharing things that are deeply personal.  We laugh together, and sometimes we go very serious together.  The nature of the Camino is to simplify your very existence until you are merely living  in the moment.  There is no room for a facade here.  No need for one.

This is the first part of the Camino. The body is now finally used to the rigors of walking all day and recovering every night. The Meseta is next.  It carries its own unique challenges and, in my experience, is the most difficult portion. It challenges the mind and mental state as much as the physical condition, if not more.  

Perhaps the most important part of our journey is our daily tradition of raising our glass prior to eating dinner. Our toast is always different, but about the same person, our invisible companion – Max Soviak.  It is a sacred moment for us as we have all served and put our lives on the line.  I think each of us carries many names of fellow soldiers who have given the ultimate sacrifice.  But here and now, they are all represented by Max.  

Max was lost to this life on August 26, during the bombing at the Kabul airport in Afghanistan.  But Max is here with us.  Each of us feels his loss, but we also feel his presence on this journey.  He will forevermore be the 22 year old kid who was larger than life.  He will never grow older as we do, but he is waiting for us on the other side with a crooked smile and a warm welcome.  Buen Camino Max.

Meet Thomas

Meet Thomas

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.”

Meet Robert

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.”

Dedicating my Camino

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.

Buen Camino,

Brad Genereux

Meet Randi

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.

The Camino holds great hope for Randi.

UNIFIL 1989 – my first tour.

Norwegian maintenance company, Camp Scorpion,Tibnine, South Lebanon.
Signal platoon Camp Scorpion 1991.