Louis shares his Camino

What is the Camino like? That’s a tough question. It’s fluid, changing day after day. Just like life.   

In the beginning, the first few days, it takes you over mountains that truly humble you.  But they also make you proud once you reach the summit. The beauty of the views takes your breath away.  Slowly you get stronger physically. 

With those first days also comes the first stories of fellow pilgrims.  They are impressive, to say the least. They are good in many ways and make you realize that you are not alone fighting your battle. They show you the good and openness in others.  War makes you forget that at times.

After that you hit the planes with endless roads. You realize soon that they are even more of a challenge. You are under constant attack of your own thoughts and memories. Slowly you hear more and more stories and in some of those stories there are answers to the questions you have been struggling with.  They change your point of view on many levels.  Again, it remains a battle, but at this point we are fighting together.  It gets emotional at times, but that doesn’t matter anymore.  We all have our moments and we all have each other’s back.  No shame.  Even the biggest and toughest cry.  It’s good to let it out.  After all this we have a beer or some wine and laugh it off

Walking half a marathon day in day out is like meditation.  Your mind slowly gets quieter, more and more peaceful with each passing mile.  It still shifts at times, especially after a few bad nights. As much as I enjoy the company of other pilgrims, sleeping with 10 of them in a room is another story.  I am a little over half way done.  Santiago is still a long way away.

Louis

Suzanne’s Camino

I am well into the second week of the Camino at the time of writing.  Every morning I have been excited to start the day… until today. Today I woke up to bloody oozing blisters.  I was in so much pain and didn’t know what to do. I went ahead and got ready to go about another day of walking, but my feet were telling me no!  A day of walking was just not an option. After seeing a doctor, he recommended staying off them for at least two days. Well, of course I listened because, well…. the pain.  It was a disappointment. However, it was then that I realized that it was actually a blessing in disguise. I had been trying to keep up with some of our Veteran group, not by speed but rather by meeting up at night in the same town.  It was causing me a lot of anxiety. I realized that by doing this, I was making this Camino journey stressful on myself. While this was my own doing, it was not the way I had hoped my Camino would go.

Much of what I have or have not done in my life has been based in fear. Fear of the unknown.  Fear of people. Fear. So many fears that would take too long mention. The Camino is helping me face situations that I would normally have either run from or found a way to avoid. In the past I have been scared to the point of almost freezing-up, but this journey is making me face my fears. I do not know what the rest of my time on this journey will bring, but my greatest hope is that I am on my way to conquering this way of being. This way that has hurt me and hurt the people I love.  

They say the Camino provides.  I have noticed that I am running into many women my mom’s age.  They are so caring and compassionate. This is something I need in my life, especially here.  It brings me to tears thinking about it. Yes, the Camino provides. It is bringing me what I need!

Update: I took two days off, as the doctor advised, and am back on the trail feeling much better!

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

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.

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