Alex reflects on his first day

I have realized in a couple of days what I struggled with for months, actually for years.

Yesterday I was faced with an uphill battle.  The first day of the French Camino involves hiking up and over the mountains that straddle the border of France and Spain.  It’s a 26 kilometer hike that features 90% inclines.  This day taught me a lesson in humility.

I thought I was well prepared and in good physical condition so I was confident.  Overly confident.  And yet I struggled.  And I couldn’t help but notice an elderly lady pass me by like I was standing still.

The next lesson came when I felt pain in my knees.  I began to get upset and I felt the complaints surge inside of my head.  I finally sat down to rest my knee and looked around noticing for the first time the breathtaking scenery.  Sometimes in life we focus on the negative and what’s wrong.  If we just breathe and take a moment to look around we can begin to appreciate the positive – amazing scenery and family for example.

Today I learned that I can push through the pain and drive on by realizing the good things in front of me, and in my life.  I am resilient and if I believe it, I can achieve it.  Sometimes you just have to push through the discomfort in order to get to the next stage of life.  

In just a short time on this journey I have already made great strides, on the trail and within myself, my perspectives, and my priorities.

Alex on the Camino de Santiago

Chris Dixon memorial Camino

 

 

2019 Memorial Camino
Private First Class Christopher R. Dixon

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In about one week Veterans On the Camino (VOC) will set off on the 2019 Camino journey with six veterans. Each participating veteran has been preparing physically and mentally for many weeks for this upcoming 550 mile walk to Santiago de Compestela. As part of our journey, VOC is dedicating this Camino to our fallen brother, PFC Chris Dixon, 18, of Columbus, Ohio. It is with honor that we will carry Dixon’s memory.
Dixon was killed on May 11 2005 in Karabilah, Iraq. His amphibious assault vehicle struck an explosive device while conducting combat operations against enemy forces. Dixon had been assigned to Marine Force Reserve’s 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division, Columbus, Ohio. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, his unit was attached to Regimental Combat Team 2, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward).
Chad, Dixon’s brother, shared stories about growing up with this American hero. “Growing up in small town Ohio shaped Chris. He knew everyone, was charismatic and seemed to be liked by all. He enjoyed being outdoors, hunting, fishing and spending time with friends. He had a daredevil streak, especially when it came to riding his dirt bike.”
“Chris only lived 18 years – but he really lived them!” Chad paused, “This kid was 5 years younger than me and always wanted to hang out with me and my buddies, he would do anything to prove he could hang with the big kids. He had more grit in him than most adults I know now. So, when he decided to join the Marine Corps it came as no surprise.”

“He had it in his head that he wanted to be an 0311 infantry rifleman. That is exactly what he did.”
During Dixon’s last visit with his brother and family he spent time time deer hunting at the family cabin. Chad shared that this has now become his favorite memory of his brother. That year was his last Christmas with his family. “He left in January 2005 then was deployed to Iraq 2 months later.”
As we can only imagine, Chad shared that his family will never be the same since Chris’ death. But Chad went on to say that his memory will not be forgotten. “When I got married, we had a memorial candle and my brother’s dress blues at our table. My wife and I still wear his dog tags.” Chad and his wife welcomed a son in 2009, who is named after his American hero uncle, Chris.
Dixon is also one of the soldiers of the Eyes of Freedom: Lima Company Memorial. This memorial travels the country with life-sized portraits of the 23 heroes who all lost their lives, all from one company, all over only a period of a few months. Chad said that this Memorial “reminds us of the cost of freedom.”

soldiers31PFC Chris Dixon on the left

I am honored to wear his dog tag on this journey. We will raise our glasses to toast Chris every evening and talk about him as we walk. Upon arriving at Cruz de Ferro, we will leave a stone that was given by his family. And, of course, the Compostella that represents completing of the journey, will be in Chris’ name. This will be given to his family upon return.
Private First Class Christopher R. Dixon will be a part of our Camino journey during every step, beside us in spirit as we walk that long road to the End of the Earth.
Brad Genereux

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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

Camino Moments

Kayoko Azuma is a slight Japanese artist who carries a backpack that looks to be larger than herself. She also ran the Barcelona Marathon last March and can outpace everybody else around here.

She was so touched by the Veterans on the Camino group that she timed her Camino to meet up with us at a very special alburgue. The Albergue San Miguel in Hospital de Orbigo is famous not only for the truly genuine hospitality afforded by the Garcia’s, but also because they provide paints and canvases for Peregrinos to use. The result is a stunning collection of paintings that decorate the walls of this cozy home.

Kyo (as we call her) took this opportunity to use her artistic talents and paint a picture representative of VOC. She dedicated this gift to VOC, to the albergue, and to the Camino itself. The painting now memorializes VOC on the walls of the Albergue. Thank you Kyo.

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Another lasting impression felt on our Camino…

This poem was written by a Peregrina who lost her sister a few years ago.  She is only 19 years old but the words are powerful.

I walk for you

Skies of grey

Or skies of blue

None of that matters

When I walk for you

 

Sometimes I’m lost

And I have no clue

But I’ll find our way

When I walk for you

 

You left too early

You were gone too soon

But I’ll never be lonely

When I walk for you

 

It gets really hard

And I feel like I’ve failed too

But I’ll never give up

When I walk for you

 

So I’ll make it to the end

And I’ll see this through

Because I don’t just walk for me

I walk for you

 

Paige Lewis

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The Iron Curtain

Many people weren’t around or don’t remember the Cold War, but Witold and I do and talk about how it was.  

Both of us were young in our military careers when the Soviet Union was still alive.  Massive amounts of military forces were arrayed on opposite sides of the iron curtain.  Practicing war, missiles and artillery aimed at each other, the threat of nuclear war hanging over us like a dirty cloud.

Witold was very much a part of this.  He was on the wall, but on the Soviet side.  Having come to know Witold, its strange to think that our countries were adversaries during that era.

His stories tell a different sort of reality though.  He talks about a time when the Soviet Union was starved for goods.  Poland was ripe for transferring many of the hard to find items that Russian soldiers prized.  Highest in demand were women’s stockings, cosmetics and condoms (by now we were laughing hysterically).  The Russians would smuggle color TV’s and gold to use as currency. The checkpoints would search for this contraband, but they would hide the goods inside of the missile tubes of the mobile launchers.

Witold laughed at the notion of the “Warsaw pact.”  It had nothing to do with Poland as they were a lukewarm participant at best in the Russian grand scheme.  Warsaw certainly had no hand in scripting this.

He recalled a running joke among his fellow Polish troops at the time, that Poland would declare war on the United States.  Once they were completely surrounded by the American forces, they would ask to become the 51st state.

While the stories are funny, it still chills me to think of what could have happened.

I’m honored to have been side by side with Polish troops in Afghanistan.  We fought together, bled together, and some paid the ultimate price. Now we are walking together on the Camino de Santiago.  Fellow Veterans and Peregrinos. Friends.

It’s good to talk about these things.  It’s good to have bonded as we have over the course of 400 km so far.  It’s good to recognize that nothing is as simple as it seems when you step back to look at the big picture.