Meet the Veterans – 2 of 6

louis

Hi, I’m Louis. I joined the army in 1992 and got deployed to the former Yugoslavia as part of UNPROFOR. That period changed my life a lot, once home I just didn’t feel like I still fitted in.
I returned to the mission working for one of the military contractors and stayed until the end of the war in 1996. A lot happened during that time. Many great things but also a lot that got burned into my eyes. I wasn’t ready to come home, to be honest I wasn’t ready for life anymore. I came close to losing it all together.
Once home I started working a lot. Mostly short-term assignments as I was unstable really. I needed the time between these assignments to recharge. Like walking life on a string, just trying to keep in balance all the time. I tried to cope for many years, but things went downhill. I was eventually diagnosed with PTSD and received therapy from a variety of organizations including the army.
In the end things got worse. The therapy sent me back to war more and more, I started having flashbacks, nightmares and anxiety. The medication didn’t have an effect on me other than causing major depression. Again, I nearly lost everything not having the power anymore to fight.
They stopped treatment and the medication. I slowly started picking up the pieces again and I managed somehow, with the support of great friends that once stood at my side, and still do.
I’m trying, it’s getting better, but I have some distance to overcome still.
I applied for Veterans on the Camino and was selected. It will be a challenge, but I will be there with others who understand my struggle. It will be an honor to walk with them and to get to know how they continued with life. I look forward learning from them and hopefully it will lead to more peace in all our lives.

Meet the Veterans – 1 of 6

lex bonilla

My name is Alex, I am a father of a 12yr old boy and a 2yr old girl. I’ve spent my entire adult life serving in the US Army as a Cavalry Scout.
After multiple deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan I was forced to retire due to things that go “boom” and that left me with multiple injuries to include a traumatic brain injury.
After a year of therapy, I retired.

I’ve spent the last 5 years mentoring other veterans suffering from mental illness. While mentoring others, I benefited from helping. Still the struggle continued as I never really took the time to focus on myself and it caused a strain in my relationships.
I am in a better place – but still want to find myself again. I’m in the process of finishing my 2nd Masters in Military Psychology with the hope of helping others on a larger scale.

Spring 2019 Camino is open for applications

 

Starting 1 October 2018 Veterans on the Camino (VOC), a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, will be accepting applications for participation in the Spring 2019 Camino.
In the beginning of April 2019, the selected Veterans will link up and depart from Saint Jean Pied du Port, France to walk the 550-mile Camino de Santiago all the way to the western most point of Spain in Finisterre. This journey will take approximately 35 days to walk, factor in travel days and you can expect to return around 15 May.
If selected to participate, VOC will provide your backpack and boots, all travel to and from your home, and a $30.00 USD daily perdiem to cover food and lodging along “The Way.”
To qualify you must:
– Be a military Veteran from any coalition nation
– Completely and legibly fill out the application form for consideration by the selection committee
– Have a valid passport or applicable Identification card to permit travel to the EU
– Understand that this is not a vacation, walking 550 miles is not an easy endeavor
– Have 40 days available to participate
– Be able to converse in basic English
If you meet this criterion and would like to apply, email VOC using the “Contact” tab on this website. An application form will be emailed to you.
Applications will be accepted via mail or email until 2400 EST, 15 December 2018.
An independent selection committee will evaluate all applications and advise the VOC board of directors which applicants they recommend for participation.
Selected participants will be notified by 7 January 2019.

Spring 2019 Camino announcement

camino_de_santiago_route_map

In just a few weeks, Veterans on the Camino will be accepting applications for the next pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella, Spain.

We are seeking any coalition Veteran interested in making this life altering journey on the ancient “Camino de Santiago.”  This journey is a transformation – not a vacation.

To qualify you must:
1. Completely fill out the application form that will be provided by VOC
2. Provide a DD214 (with SSN blacked out) or equivalent if you served with other than US forces
3. Be able to clear your schedule from 1 April 2019 until 15 May 2019
4. Have a valid passport (or equivalent if from another EU country)

The applications will be accepted from 1 October 2018 until 15 December 2018 and the selection results will be publicized in early January.

If selected, we will conduct a phone interview and equip you with a backpack and boots to begin your preparations before linking up in early April for this 550 mile walk across northwestern Spain.

In addition to the boots and backpack, VOC will pay all travel to and from the Camino and will provide $30 USD per day to cover food and albergue costs while on the Camino.

Buen Camino,
Brad Genereux

 

CASEY SAUNIER MEMORIAL CAMINO

Dedicating the Veterans Camino to a lost soldier came about unexpectedly. It wasn’t by design. However, it has become a major part of the Veterans journey each time we make the trek. This spring, we dedicated the walk to Casey Saunier. He was very much part of our journey and our group. Every evening, we would sit as a family to have dinner, before beginning our meal a few words were said, and glasses raised in honor of our silent brother. It is a fact that Casey brought us all closer together as we thought about and talked about how each of us had also been in that dark place. We found our way out while Casey did not.

In July, I took a trip to Louisiana to pay my respects to Casey’s family and friends who had gathered to inter his ashes into his final resting place.

I would like to thank Casey’s sister, Kimberly for sharing her experience:

A PATH TO PEACE

My brother, Sgt. Casey Saunier, a Marine veteran with three tours of duty was an exceptional son, friend, Marine and brother. For over a decade, he fought the demons that came home with him from his deployments serving our country. On December 12, 2017, he lost the battle and took his own life. My family was shaken to the core. We wondered if we would ever feel at peace again.

In March 2018, a family friend, Kat Cope, told us about Veterans on the Camino. She had taken the liberty to talk to Brad about Casey and tell his story. She had a bracelet made in Casey’s honor and asked him to dedicate walking the Camino in Casey’s name with the bracelet. Brad immediately agreed. He spoke with my parents and some of Casey’s fellow Marines to learn more about him. Along his 500-mile journey, he shared these stories with the fellow veterans he walked with.

For VOC to do this for Casey and my family was truly extraordinary. My family and I viewed this gesture as one more step toward closure and as one more thing being done in Casey’s name. We would wake up each morning to check to see if there was a new blog post or pictures. Brad would take the time throughout the journey to post pictures of him with Casey’s bracelet. That bracelet was more than a bracelet to us. It was a physical symbol of Casey’s spirit being with the Veterans as they made this ancient pilgrimage. We prayed that this journey would finally give Casey the peace that he spent the latter part of his life searching for. We believe he found it.

finistere with Casey

Two days before Casey’s birthday we held a memorial service to lay his ashes to rest and invited everyone who played a role in his life. Brad represented VOC and stayed with our family for the ceremony. Words cannot express what we felt that day. My parents were presented with the Compostella dedicated to Casey, along with the credential, a medallion, and two shells from the ocean symbolizing Casey’s walk to the end of the Earth. He also presented my parents with the bracelet he wore throughout the journey. My dad slipped the bracelet onto his wrist that night and has yet to take it off.

To say that this experience made an impact in our life is an understatement. Not only did his walk represent bringing peace to Casey’s soul but also bringing peace to our souls. My family and I will always be grateful for what VOC did for us. Casey sent so many good people into our lives to help us through our grief.

Camino reflections

Its been several weeks since we returned from Spain. We have all settled back into our lives and “normal routines” but the Camino will always be a part of us now. I believe this experience made a profound difference in each of us – the Polish Veterans Piotr and Witold, Dan the US Marine, Giovanni the French Foreign Legion Veteran who became part of our group and, of course, myself. Veterans share a common bond by virtue of standing in harms way, shoulder to shoulder. This new bond we share was forged by walking the Camino de Santiago, also shoulder to shoulder.

Dan has graciously shared his thoughts and observations about his experience on the Camino. We are all better humans for this shared experience. Buen Camino my friends!

Brad Genereux
VOC founder

Contributed by Dan, 2018 VOC Veteran participant:

It’s been just over two months since we Veterans on the Camino stepped off on our journey from St. Jean Pied de Port, France. And it’s been a month now since we reached Santiago, the tomb of St. James and the timeless end of the road for most peregrinos. We then continued immediately on to Finisterre, the even more ancient journey to “the end of the earth” and of the known world for millennia, from there splintering into journeys to our respective homes and lives resumed.

I wonder often how profoundly the pilgrim experience has affected each of us. Personally, I can say that it still manifests itself every day. It takes little to remind me of the blessed simplicity of Camino life—not that it was easy, because it was far from it. But the need to focus daily on the basics – hydration, sustenance, shelter, progress, contemplation, perhaps prayer – rather than the usual hundred-odd things that can pull one’s attention in every direction but the needed one…that was a precious gift. The opportunity to make friendships along the way, with people from all over the world, was another one for sure. There were more than a few times when I had to shake my head in amazement at the international dynamics in some of our gatherings, seeing a veritable United Nations of pilgrims singing along to something played by our friend Jean-Baptiste, for example.

It’s at least slightly crazy to miss the vagabond way of “the Way”… to miss waking up each morning in a different bed, a different bunk room, a different hostel, a different town, than the one before, and to repeat that pattern for more than five weeks straight. Yet conversations overhead in normal life seem far more absurd. We may have had silly arguments while bumping into each other constantly on the Camino, but that’s far more forgivable than the kind of constant complaining you’ll hear from those who hate their lives but refuse to change them. And any day’s frustrations melted easily by the time a group dinner was prepared, toasts made and stories shared, something communal that is missing in regular life for all but a very fortunate few in this age.

Vivid memories are so easily brought to life by random things seen or heard in post-Camino life: simply eating at a picnic table today reminded me powerfully of lunch at a similar table one afternoon in Rioja, breaking out a shared meal with Witold and Paige, ditching the boots and socks to let our feet recuperate in the chilly grass for a spell. We were on our way to mystical and meditative Grañón, where the volunteer hosts at a donation-based albergue located in an old church (they were ALL old, for an American especially) made us feel so welcome, and so privileged to be on this journey. That entire feeling, remembering the aches and pains of that particular moment, along with the sights, smells and sounds that made it so special, is what made the journey so special.

At the same time, the journey is dreamlike in retrospect: a blur of images and associated emotions from across a changing landscape and featuring an often-rotating cast of characters. Matching dates with places is often puzzling, for example trying to make sense of when we trudged through the seemingly constant cold rain and strong wind of Navarra, when we traversed the hot and dusty Meseta cattle farms, and when we climbed into the strikingly colorful lands of Bierzo and then Galicia. It’s too easy already to forget just how many days of trial and wonder, introspection and camaraderie, actually did lay between the mountain air of the Pyrenees crossing on April 4th and the Atlantic winds that greeted us at the heights of the northwest after O Cebreiro…entire states, ancient kingdoms whose mighty walls and churches still tell tales of the struggles and triumphs of their histories.

As I flew back over the continental United States to Denver, I gazed down at rivers constantly and thought of how many Camino moments took place on or along the banks of rivers: water breaks, spontaneous lunch picnics, an occasional cool-down splash when it didn’t require too much removal of tape and bandages, a cold beer or a hot café con leche at a table with a view. One day very early in the trek, I stuck my feet in the icy water alongside Piotr, and I’ll never forget dropping a sock in a most unfortunate spot as I moved, allowing the river to swiftly sweep it away. He yelled something as a good comrade would, and I just shrugged and laughed, knowing for once that there was no use dwelling on this bonehead error. Something about the most kinetic of waterways makes so much more sense on the Way, as they are meandering, changing speed and depth, anything but direct, in search of a distant destination. We were all like that in some way as we walked.

Will we continue to be peregrinos on THE WAY of life? That’s up to each of us. I can easily see walking again with any or all of my amigos from this journey, but even if it shouldn’t happen in that way, I imagine every one of us taking some of the Camino approach in how we deal with goals and challenges. We made a name for ourselves among fellow pilgrims, with our common bond of past military service and shared sacrifice, and can continue to further that name wherever our paths take us.

 

The Camino is no vacation!

The daily routine begins with a systematic application of tape, bandages, lotions and careful donning of socks and boots.  Not everybody is suffering the same aches, pains and blisters but all have experienced a variety of discomfort.

After a month together we know each other quite well. We help each other out as well as other Peregrinos, and they help us.  

We have “favorite sock day.”  We are tired and sore more often than not.

The Camino is not a vacation.

On the flip side, the metabolism is at peak efficiency.  We can eat whatever we want knowing that our bodies will easily burn the calories.  Everybody has lost the extra weight, we are leaner versions of ourselves.

The exercise, all day every day, has improved breathing, circulation, muscle tone and even thinking.  Much of the day is spent simply walking and that leaves ample time to ponder thoughts as they come and go.  No need to focus on a project at hand, or immediate work problem. The mind wanders where it will and discoveries are made.

This is actually the bigger challenge of walking the Camino.  The thoughts that rise to the surface aren’t always particularly nice ones.  But there is room on the Camino to sort through them, plenty of time and space.  Perhaps the most valuable benefit of walking the Camino is the peace that is found simply by having no boundaries on thoughts and the ability to process and come to terms with them.

We meet other Veterans on the Camino.  The Vietnam Veteran, Richard. Cory who lost his hand.  Jed and Sandy, the Veteran couple who are now wanderlust nurses.  We share an immediate bond, Veterans and Peregrinos on this long, long journey.

With just over 60 miles left to Santiago, this group of Veterans is travel weary but also in a much better place, physically, mentally and emotionally.

Santo Jacobea beckons us forward day after day.  Our existence has become very simple. Walk, eat and sleep.  We continue on the way towards Santiago and ultimately, Finisterre – the end of the earth.

Leaving stones at “Cruz de Ferro” – Witold arrives in Galicia – Two Veterans on a long walk