“As we prepare for the spring 2020 Camino, I would like to thank Chris S. for sharing his story of our meeting on the Camino last spring. ‘There is no such thing as coincidence on the Camino’ holds true. Check out his story below. If you know of a Veteran who is struggling and looking for a way to put life in perspective, this just might just be what they need. Please put them in touch. Also, if you are able to help our cause – every little bit helps to make this possible.”
The Camino de Santiago has been
walked for over a thousand years as one of the three pilgrimages of Catholics,
in this day age it has now morphed into a pilgrimage for many reasons; 1st
– it is still a pillar of Catholicism, 2nd – personal reasons, 3rd
– group walks for celebrations or anniversaries, guided walking tours of Spain
and hosts of other reasons.
I was on my own
journey walking the “De la Plata” route when serendipity raised its magic wand
in the village Rabanal and a unique event occurred (people who have walked the
Camino often talk of the “spiritual events” that exist along the many routes
and those who are “aware” will recognize them). As I walked up the hills in
Rabanal I stumbled across an intriguing hostel and decided to enter the
establishment. The pleasant smells of baking banana bread and scented candles
wafted across my olfactory senses. The
proprietor, Kim entered the room and after basic introductions and room price
settlement, we began a conversation as to why each of us had walked the
Camino. This conversation, like all conversations,
morphed in the notion that the “way” is a healing journey. I explained to Kim that I was a US Army
Veteran who was seeking ease the memory of my wartime experiences by taking a
long walk. I had read many books by
others who had experienced similar events in their lives (M. Somerset Maugham,
Ernest Hemmingway and Stephen Crane). I
was trying to find a rational for the events that I and many others have
endured, and how and why I was reacting in negative ways to the memories of past
Kim then told me about a group of men and
women veterans that were also walking the Camino to find some relief for their
issues. I was interested in meeting up
with this group and asked of Kim if she could put me in contact with the group
leader. She immediately sent a message
to Brad (He created Veterans on the Camino “VOC” as a non-profit organization
to assist military veterans by walking the Camino de Santiago) to see if I
could join up with them and be amongst my fellow veterans. Brad agreed and stated that he would be in
Burgos on “Palm Sunday” with the rest of the group and that I could meet them
there and walk with them from that point on.
The next morning
after coffee and a basic breakfast that Kim made, we jumped into her little
pizza deliver van known as “Giuseppe” and drove down the mountain to Astorga to
drop me off at the main bus station.
After a short wait the bus arrived. Kim and I parted ways, I told her that I would see her in about two weeks. Her reply, “the teapot will be on, fresh loaves of banana bread would be warm, and dinner will be decided upon after our arrival.” The bus departed heading east across the northern plains of Spain. Rolling hills covered with fields of grain growing in the Spanish sun and sinuous roads used by farmers and maintenance personnel crisscrossed the landscape. In some locations giant wind turbines stood like a vanguard of stationary Army against the blue sky as their aero designed wings rotated in the breeze in a steady governed pace providing light and warmth to the people they served. During the trip the bus stopped in several smaller out post villages to drop off and pick up passengers as we continued to meander east toward Burgos.
Brad Genereux and Veterans on the Camino
I arrived in
Burgos later that Friday and set about locating my hotel room for the next
couple of days. Burgos is a wonderful city
that is located on the Arlanzon River that cuts through the Northern Iberian
plains. A long-developed promenade on
either side of the river allows for residents and visitors a pleasant path to
walk along as they explore the many treasures of Burgos. Store fronts and apartments line the northern
side of the river, museums and a walking path along the southern bank.
When Sunday arrived,
I went to meet Brad for the first time. I crossed the river and entered the
walled city via the “Arco de Santa Maria” which led me directly to the Cathedral
courtyard. Earlier in the day I stood in
awe of the “Palm Sunday” processions. Men, women and children walked in their
finest as they carried their respective “floats” or re-enacted the waving of
the palms as a way of signifying the arrival of the messiah through the streets
of Jerusalem 2000 yrs prior.
Any Soldier or Sailor who has served in the
military for any length of time can spot a warrior just by posture and presence. The uniform may be retired, the hair
lengthens, the beard may thicken, and the adornment of civilian vestments may
decorate our frames, but the artifact of “presence” never leaves. It is one of the “Perks” that we leave
military with that very few outside of the military earn or know about. It is the unspoken lexicon that we earned
during our years of service and we use it to see other warriors in the seas of humanity
that occupy this planet.
exchanged welcomes and sentiments of approval for our service and the work that
we did while we served. We talked about
experiences of daily life of the military; MOS, service differences,
responsibilities associated rank, deployments and other commonalities and
differences of military life throughout the years. Like any soldier or sailor, emotions of
pride, aggravation of bureaucracy, and love of the life were expressed. We also talked about the current life that we
were living post military, and hardships that we had encountered post career;
learning to return to civilian life, dealing with PTSD, adapting to earned
physical wounds of military service, dealing with the veterans administration
and how to adapt to family and friends post military life.
Brad explained to
me his story about the Camino and the positive experiences he had gained by
walking. He told me that he had written
a book about his prior discoveries while walking the Camino; he had found some
peace and solace in his mind from walking the long distance between the cities,
across the vast plains and mountains of Spain. He also noted many physical
changes that he developed from these pilgrimage walks. He later explained to me that he also
developed a “Non-Profit” organization to guide veterans who were experiencing
issues (PTSD, physical pain and other issues) post military life. He explained that the journey had brought
positive results to many whom he had guided along the pilgrimage of St James.
then began to ask about the other veterans that he was assisting along the
walk. He told me that they were a
diverse group of men and women who had been selected to walk the Camino by his
organization and who had met the criteria.
Four US service personnel, one French Foreign Legion, one Polish, one
Dutch and a group of other people that had attached to his group. The military personnel were a diverse group,
and each was working through issues that had developed due to events post war
and post military service. Even the group of personnel who attached, were also
associated with military in some way and so they also knew the life and the
events that can plague a soldiers mind and body,
evening we all sat down to have a drink in the shadow of the Burgos cathedral. I met many of the group and was entertained by
each of them as they told their stories of military service and the lives they
were currently living. After a couple of
hours I asked Brad what was the time and location of the rally point for the
next day so that we could begin walking.
next day we met at our agreed location and over coffee con leche and croissants,
we set what the next location was the goal for the days walk. Guide books and
phone apps opened, each of us calculated distances, the locations of possible
mid day breaks to obtain food and water or a nap, and the final destination for
the days walk and the location of hostel or alburge for sleeping that was
located in that village or city. Each day the average distance was around 15 to
18 miles a day, with an occasional 20 miler if necessary.
As I began to walk with these men and women
over the next few days I would learn their names, where they were from, why
they joined the various services. I also begin to elicit their stories about
the military service, their family lives, why and of what benefit they would
receive by walking the Camino. It was
evident that many were dealing with some sort of mental issues related to
military service. The physical wounds
were not much of an issue in restricting our movements, as most of us were
physically intact. All of us had bumps,
broken bones, arthritic changes and other physical manifestation due to
military service (Yes, military service is a contact sport) from our different
jobs; we were paratroopers, engineers, scouts, medics, intell, communications
and a host of other military specialties.
But the physical demands of just being a soldier took its toll on our
bodies over the years we served.
There were also
myriads of events that each of us encountered during our military service had
left haunting scars on our minds (these are the wounds that are not visible to
the average person, but can be seen by friends and family as they manifest
changes in our behavior). In some cases it may have been one event, but for many
of us it was combinations of events. The
event(s) in many of our lives was usually some sort of war trauma; engagements
with the enemy, indirect fire on our locations (mortar, rocket or road side
bombs; IED’s), sexual assaults, or the provision of medical care to the
wounded; soldiers, enemy combatants or civilians caught in the crossfire.
The expression of
the mental scars could be private or public depending on the person, but due to
the stoic nature of being a soldier or sailor we blunt our emotions to remain
functional in our jobs while in War Theater or at our “normal jobs” in garrison.
As we are taught from day one, “mission first”. This mentality allows us to complete missions
that are critical to success of the unit.
Afterward we begin to process the events that occurred, and from that
moment the realizations begin to sink in.
The “Oh Shit” moments that we bore witness to ingrain in our memories
become permanent within our psychological make up.
From the day when
we encountered “ a specific event, or felt the culmination of many events”, we
as veterans become susceptible to being assaulted mentally or physically by
them. The assaults can be random due to
some “trigger” in our daily lives, others manifest in our sleep as nightmares,
and others just arrive like an unwelcomed guest during a garden party. In most cases and they begin to take their
toll on our lives. Our minds change from
that moment on, we are on different emotional ground. The change to the mind can become permanent;
we cannot un-see or un-feel what occurred.
As time passes we learned to function as if we were still “normal” but
the emotional ground that we now reside on is unstable; blunted emotions,
physical and emotional outbursts, alcohol and drug abuse, isolation from others
(this includes; family, friends, and society in general), panic attacks, fear of
loud noises, fear of crowds, and many of these events land us with encounters
with law enforcement. Other issues that
manifest after the scars formed on the mind were medical issues that are internal
in the body. Hypertension, heart
arrhythmias, blood glucose problems, lung issues, headaches, cancers, systemic inflammation,
small brain strokes, muscle stiffness, headaches of all types (cluster and
migraine) and fat changes in the body (obesity, fatty liver disease and cholesterol
Because of these issues, both mental and
physical, many of us were on medications to control and lessen the effects of
our service. Some of us were taking psychotropic drugs to calm our minds; some
of us were using hypnotics so that we could garner a few hours of undisturbed
sleep. Some of us were also on
anti-cholesterol, hypertension, anti-inflammatory, cardiac medications and host
of others to relieve our physiology changes within our bodies. And some of us, well we self medicate to
alleviate the stressors that plague our minds. While they do provide some
relief from the issues, they also take a toll on physical and mental well being
of our minds too.
One of the positive effects of being in the military is the physical aspect. From day one we are challenged every day with physical activity. Push ups, sit ups, chin ups, swimming, running and long distance walking and a host of many more physical challenges. As many of us had served for decades we had developed the mental and physical ability to walk the long distances without much issue. Yes, there were the occasional blisters that formed, muscles of the legs and back along with the joints of the body would be sore after a day of long walking but we could over come those issues with Motrin, Compeed, wine, warm showers and warm bed to sleep in.
As days passed and we continued to
walk the Camino Frances from Burgos and across the Mesaita to Hontanas,
Teradillos de la Templarios, Leon, and to Astorga. Leaving Astorga we could look back on the
plains of Northern Spain while we began our assent into the mountains of
Galicia, this is where the terrain would become a roller coaster of up and down
mountain ranges for the next couple of weeks.
By the time we left Astorga, all of us had been walking for over a month
or more and all of us had walked over 350 miles, but we still had 165 miles
more before we would arrive in Santiago de Compestella.
changes were evident. Our body mass had changed; our legs had developed greater
muscle mass, our shoulders had become broader from carrying our backpacks, our
feet had become calloused, and our joints had become supple again. Yet our waists and our facial profiles had
dropped in diameter and shape, we had all become lean from the extensive
walking under load across the Iberian Peninsula. The load that we all carried was both physical
and also mental. The physical weight that we all carried was our personal gear;
the mental weights we carried were also personal, but could not be gauged by conventional
systems of weights and measurements. But
as we walked day in and day out both sets of weights became much lighter due to
increases in strength. As time passed we
also found that we could walk further than the week before, and what were once
daunting distances were now seen as just the next mission for the day and each
of us looked forward to walking the distance that Brad had laid out.
aspect that I had begun to notice in many of members, was that the minds had
become calmer the mental weights had become lighter due to many events along
the trail. The once over active minds
that were full of concerns about our lives both current and past events had
given way to internal peace. Was it the
walking and the associated body changes? Was it looking forward to the next
rise on the horizon, castle, plain, valley, field or orchard? Was it the breakfasts,
coffee or beer breaks, dinner, or was it the sense of accomplishment at the end
of each day?
Possibly one of
the reasons was that each of did so well as we walked, is that from the day we
chose to walk the Camino we had a daily goal to achieve. As each day began we had to make a known
distance to the next point that Brad had determined as the stopping point for
that day. Some days it was 10 miles, others,
the distance could be greater than 20.
It was up to each of us – what we believed we could complete. But because there was a camaraderie that had developed,
the distances were enjoyable to walk. Some
of the miles we walked alone, others we walked with one or more of the group
and talked about life; telling jokes, challenging each other to move and cross
distance, talking about family life and our days in the service, our minds
became occupied with goal achievement and friendly gaffes at one another as if
we were still in a small military unit where we are family.
At the end of the
day as we all checked into our accommodations.
We would drop our packs, lay out our sleeping systems on beds, and then
change our clothing and find a table to have a sit down conversation about the
days events. Beer, wine, soda or water where
purchased and we would talk about the days walking. What we saw or experienced,
people we meet along the trail, how our bodies felt “my dogs are barking”, “my back
is sore”, “Doc…. I have blisters” or “who has any Motrin?” Usually after one or two rounds of drinks we
would all retire to our personal needs; wash and rinse out clothing and hang to
dry, shower and clean the road dirt off, remove inner soles from boots and let
them air dry or lay out in the Spanish sun to feel its warmth, and many of us
would take a nap or rest before dinner.
Dinner for the
most part was a group event. The hostels
or alburges or local restaurants would provide a pilgrims meal for a small fee.
It consisted of three courses of food
and drinks of water or wine; first would usually be a soup or pasta course. Normally
we had four to five choices. The Second
phase was a protein based meal, again four to five choices but usually had a
large course of potatoes associated with it to fill a pilgrims body with the
necessary calories for the next day walk.
Finally there was a desert course.
But the most important part of the meal was the salute to the fallen
that we all carried in our memories.
Brad had in the past walked the Camino for the fallen and their
families. He carried a small token of
them and before we began, he would say a toast to the fallen soldier he carried
in his soul. Each of us would raise our
glasses and toast not only Brad’s solider but the ones that we also carried in
At the end of the
eating each of us would retire to our beds.
We would begin rituals of re-packing our gear, laying out our cloths for
the next day, looking at maps of where we were and what we would come across
the next day, call and text love ones back home, or find others we had made
friends with and hold further conversations over a local Spanish wine or beer.
The next morning as the roosters crowed and sun rose in the east they were telling us it was time to move on and the cycle would repeat itself again. Wake up, change sleeping cloths for walking gear, cover blisters, put on socks, repack sleeping gear, brush teeth, lace up boots load our packs to our backs and rally our group outside. Find coffee, bread and juice, eat and begin walking the next section of the Camino de Santiago.
Santiago de Compostella and the end of the earth
After weeks of
walking, some of us had broken away from the main group for various reasons; to
rest our bodies and allow them to heal, to see historical sites in greater
depth or to walk a different path. As trails enter Santiago de Compestella one
can see the cathedral off in the distance as you summit “Monte do Gozo”. The crest of hilltop is adorned with a large
of statue of two pilgrims who are elated that they have reached the valley
where Santiago de Compestella lays. Most of pilgrims as they reach the summit
almost all mimic the poses of the statue; we are elated that we have made it,
groups of people will stop and hug each other, and others take photos of
themselves next to the statues or with the Cathedral in the distance. Busses of
people also wander around the statue taking photos and talking to walking
pilgrims who have just summited the hilltop.
Now the walk
becomes hurried, as you are close enough to see Cathedral and it becomes a
point of navigation to one of the last legs of the journey. The goal of many is to stand in the glory of
“Obradoiro Square” and know they have become part of fraternity of pilgrims
over the ages that have also stood in the vast space in awe and elation.
Many in our crew
arrived into Santiago de Compestella around the 5th to the 8th of
May 2019. Upon arrival into the city we
found our way to the “pilgrims office” to obtain our Compestella to enter our
names of the roll of others who have completed the walk and to validate that we
had completed the walk of St James and obtain our physical paper
Compestella. To display somewhere in our
homes that we have actually completed this journey.
Then we made our way to Cathedral so that we
could enter. There are several sacred
objects rituals that most of us who have read the stories know to expect or
encounter. To stand in front of the main
alter designed by Pena de Toro and bask in its 36 Solomonic columns or wander
in amazement of the carved vine tendrils. Then to enter the cavern beneath the
alter and stand or kneel at the ossuary of St James the Apostle and his
disciples Athanasius and Thoedomirus and pray in what ever manner one believes
will be heeded. Then await the pilgrims
blessing or if your lucky to bear witness to the blessings of the pilgrims with
the swaying “Botafumeiro” that fills the Cathedral with blessings of smoke and
the wonderful aromas of myrrh, frankincense, copal and a host of others that
bathe the olfactory senses in pleasant waves.
As this experience ended we returned to our digs and prepared for the
next and final leg of the Camino.
journey to Santiago de Compestella is not the final destination for many of us walking
the Camino. From Santiago, the group
made it’s way further west to shore line of either Muxia or Finisterre, as
these locations are the final legs of the journey. Both locations have unique spiritual significance
rooted in the Celtic and Roman traditions and rituals. To the many generations of pilgrims who have
walked the Camino; to watch the sun set at the “western edge of the world” is
the final leg.
There is the battle of the Atlantic and the Spanish shoreline; the emerald sea rages against the Iberian land mass. The sun begins to set in the west and the blue sky begins to change colors in a myriad of hues; yellows give way to oranges, oranges to red and finally the blanket of darkness begins to over power the diwlinding light of the sun as it sets, and the familiar star patterns begin to shine in eastern sky and make their way over us and race towards western the sky. Many of us took photos of the event to complete our documentation of our journey and commemorate the even, but each of us knew that in the recesses of our minds that we would not forget the events of the Camino. From initial footsteps of where ever we began our Camino to the final sun set on the western shores of Spain. The travels of the Vets on the Camino will forever be etched in each of our memories.
Beginning today, 15 September 2019, the applications for the spring 2020 Camino are available.
A 550 mile pilgrimage on the “Camino de Santiago”
On or around 1 April 2020, the group of Veterans who are selected will begin walking from Saint Jean Pied du Port, France. The journey will require approximately 35 days and averaging about 15 miles walking per day. Including travel days, you can expect to be away for about 40 days. We will walk beyond Santiago de Compostella to Finisterre – “The end of the Earth.”
VOC will provide your boots and backpack, all travel expenses and a daily per diem to cover lodging and food.
If you are still reading – and still interested – this is how you qualify:
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
Have 40 days available
Be able to converse in basic English
Understand that this is not a vacation
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 must be returned by 2400 EST, 15 November 2019.
A phone interview will take place after the application is received and an independent selection committee will evaluate all applications and advise the VOC board of directors which applicants are recommended for participation.
Selected Veterans will be notified by 15 January 2020.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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 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
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.
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.
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.