Meet Ward

Ward retired from the Canadian army in 2017, after seven tours and 37 years of service.

Ward tells his own story.  He is open, honest. As with most combat veterans, his tale is heroic and heartbreaking.  For those of us who have never served or have not had someone close to us serve, it is sometimes hard to fully understand.  As you read about Ward’s experiences, I challege you to place yourself in his shoes, to empathize with a combat veteran’s situation.

I have been deployed seven times. Three were United Nations peacekeeping missions and four were NATO missions.  The rules of engagement for the peacekeeping missions in Cyprus and Croatia were very strict and, at times, confusing.  As a Section leader on both tours, it was demanding. But also a good learning experience. The first tour, Cyprus, was not overly dangerous as it had been quiet there for some time.  Croatia was more active with mortars and small arms fire directed at us. Although these peacekeeping missions were not as outright dangerous, what hit me the hardest was traveling through villages that had been ethnically cleansed.  There was still food on tables, but no sign of people anywhere. Fields were covered with slaughtered pets and livestock. The images stick with me. It is something my mind’s eye often pulls into focus, as much as I would like to forget. 

My other tours were in Bosnia, Afghanistan (3 times) and, finally, Israel.  As an Infantry Warrant Officer in Afghanistan I did some special training to become part of a counter IED team that included an EOD team – that put us up close and personal with really big bombs.  Our job was to detect and exploit IEDs in order to gather information about trends, signatures of the bomb makers, and any other information we could find. We ran from dawn to dusk, constantly. The effects of the explosions and the relentless schedule left a mark on me in ways I still cannot fully comprehend.

I believe the first rumblings I had that these experiences were affecting me started subtly in Croatia.  Then, after Afghanistan, it took ahold of me. But I was too proud to admit it. I just soldiered on. It was all I knew to do.

One more short tour in Israel to make it through before retirement.  It was a different type of deployment: no weapons, no uniforms. Just a go bag.  We knew we were being watched everywhere we went, by both the Israelis and HAMAS. 

When I returned home I knew there was something seriously wrong with my state of mind.  I withdrew from activities and eventually just stopped leaving the sanctuary of my home.  I could only handle the company of myself and my dogs. I was wired too tightly to be around others.

I spent two years isolated from the world.  It took me that long to realize I needed help.  

I was diagnosed with severe PTSD.  I began therapy. Recently I attended some group courses and seminars with other veterans.  I am beginning to slowly start socializing again and now have a small group of friends. But I still struggle with going outside my circle of comfort.  It is still hard to accept some aspects of my experiences and the mark they left on me, but at least I now know how to approach it.

I believe Veterans on the Camino is a step forward in my recovery and I am so thankful for being selected for this opportunity.

~ Ward

Meet Brian

Meet Brian.  

Brian served his country for 20 years in the US Army, retiring in 2007.  During his service he deployed to Iraq three times.  Each time he participated in engagements that continue to haunt him to this day: IEDs, being in the direct line of fire, losing friends and brothers.

Brian’s job in the military was transportation/logistics, placing him “outside the wire” in the midst of dangerous territory on almost a daily basis. He supported the 1st armored division from Kuwait to Iraq when they were searching for Saddam Hussein.  He also spent time escorting third country nationals throughout Iraq (Al-Asaad).  These areas were dangerous to say the least.  So much so that he often found himself having to backtrack to “round up” whomever he was escorting as they did not want to enter the territories, particularly Fallujah.  Brian also spent a considerable amount of time escorting American civilians to deliver mail throughout Iraq.  He ran two exhausting convoys each day, in daylight and rush hour. Prime time for enemy attacks.   

Brian was exposed to multiple IED explosions during his tours. On his very first mission in Iraq, Brian was separated from the convoy after enemy contact.  He was out of his truck and had shots fired at and around him.  His truck ended up in unfamiliar areas, clearly increasing the risks.  If that wasn’t enough, rocks and bottles were thrown at them by Iraqi civilians.  He continues to have anxiety while driving.  He suffers with panic attacks, especially if he feels he is lost or is uncertain about where he is going.  This continues today, 13 years later. 

Due to multiple IED explosions, particularly during his second tour, Brian suffers from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).  He continues to struggle with difficulties in his memory, concentration, reading and writing.  He has trouble retaining information.  Despite these obstacles, after retiring Brian returned to school and ultimately earned his Bachelor’s degree. This was no small feat.  Brian’s school path was certainly not without struggle.  He initially failed his classes and required cognitive rehabilitation in order to learn how to learn again, due to his symptoms of TBI.  Today, Brian continues to push through these obstacles and is working towards his Masters in Outdoor Adventure Expedition Leadership.  He only has his thesis to complete to earn his degree.  However, writing and focusing continue to be a struggle that he battles daily.  Nonetheless, Brian continues to fight his battles and is determined to complete the Masters program. 

Brian began participating in therapy shortly after his retirement, in 2008.  He continues to attend both individual and group sessions with other veterans.  He has good days.  But he also has bad days when he does not want to get out of bed. His kids, 5 of them between the ages of 14 and 24, are his inspiration.

Brian is hopeful that this journey will help him to continue to overcome the effects of his experiences.  As evident from his story, he is a fighter and looks for ways to continue to improve.  Brian has been interested in walking the Camino for a few years and has been aware of the potential healing such a journey could bring.  Welcome Brian.  We hope the Camino brings you further along in your journey to peace and recovery.

Meet Gavin

Introducing Gavin.  A Vietnam veteran from Australia and the first Vietnam veteran to participate in a VOC journey.

Gavin emigrated to Australia and was welcomed by being almost immediately scripted into the Australian military.  He was deployed to Vietnam where he proudly served his country as a section leader, equivalent to a squad leader in the US military.  

Gavin’s time in Vietnam was difficult at best.  He spent six to eight weeks at a time patrolling the jungle, setting ambushes and searching for Vietcong.  He would return for a week or so from the jungle, then be sent back out for another six to eight week stint.  Gavin witnessed and participated in combat actions that are forever ingrained in his memories.

Upon returning home to Australia, Gavin was met with similar public sentiment as our veterans experienced in the US.  He, along with the other soldiers returning home, were required to wear civilian clothing and fly on commercial airlines in the middle of the night in order to avoid being seen.  Unfortunately, word of the soldiers’ return did not remain secret. He was met by protestors at the airport throwing things at them and jeering at them. This remains one of the difficult memories that he has worked to overcome throughout his life.

Gavin then began trying to process what he had been through in Vietnam and find his place back home.  He recalls that it was nearly impossible to “fit in” as a soldier. Not only mentally and emotionally, but in appearance as well.  The time was the early 1970s and “hippie” was the fashion. Soldiers stood out to all with military haircuts. There was no way to blend in back at home.  And at a time when he felt scorned because he served his country, Gavin wanted to blend in.

To further complicate his situation, the social climate at that time did not recognize the difficulties a soldier had after service.  There was no thought or discussion of counseling. He had no one to help him process what he had experienced in Vietnam.  

Gavin struggled to adjust to regular life and work after the military.  He floated around for awhile, a wanderer. However, Gavin was, and still is, a fighter with a positive perspective on life.  Luckily for him, there were several members of the 7th Battalion who lived nearby. The men became a close knit group and supported one another in their transition.  Today, more than 40 years later, they continue to periodically get together.  

Gavin continues to have a positive perspective and is full of life.  He strives to improve himself and leave a positive mark on those around him.  Despite his experiences and struggles, he makes it a point to be upbeat. Gavin is a survivor.  He will take this 500 mile trek to continue to process his experiences, a lifelong endeavor.

Meet Krista

Krista is a US Army veteran.  She was deployed to Saudi Arabia and Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.  Her specialty was as an Arabic linguist leading to her service as an interrogator as well as an interpreter.  Krista’s time in the Middle East was fraught with enemy engagement, including a barrage of scud missile attacks and the constant fear of chemical warfare.  The effects of such experiences hardly need explanation. 

However, for Krista there was another stressor during her service in the Middle East.  As an interpreter, Krista dealt directly with Saudi men.  The time was the early 1990s.  Back then the Middle East was even more male dominated than it is today.  With constant threats and insults, Krista was routinely reminded of that fact.  They spoke to her in Arabic so her colleagues did not understand or realize what was happening.  Krista kept it all to herself.  She became isolated and was essentially alone.

Upon leaving the military, Krista tried to leave those memories and fears behind her.  She tried to maintain an image of the perfect life.  She returned to school but continued to isolate herself from others.  At the same time she was trying to maintain a marriage to another veteran suffering with PTSD, also undiagnosed at that time.  Krista focused all of her energy on school and her marriage.  It was her way of avoiding her past. 

Ultimately, Krista and her husband divorced.  She raised her two daughters on her own. The time on her own left space for her untended wounds, which came back with a fury.  Nightmares, panic attacks and anxiety forced her into more isolation and a downward spiral.  Krista realized that she was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress – and she needed to deal with it.  She had two children to raise and a life that she wanted to live. She finally began to seek treatment.  In addition to her PTSD, Krista was also diagnosed with cancer and, shortly thereafter, Gulf War Illness, causing her to feel fatigued and generally sick. 

But Krista is a fighter.  She is working on her recovery and dealing with PTSD.  After retiring from a teaching career, Krista returned to school for another Masters in Outdoor Leadership.  She finds that being in nature helps her to deal with her problems better, both physically and mentally.  She continues to work on herself and her recovery.  While she has a ways to go, she knows her triggers and her reactions, and has made significant progress.  She hopes to make further strides walking the Camino this Spring.

Buen Camino Krista – Ultreia et Suseia!

A chance meeting of Veterans on the Camino?

“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.”

Brad Genereux

The Beginning

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 events. 

 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.

2019 Veterans on the Camino

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.

            We 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. 

            I 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,

            That 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.

            The 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 issues).

 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.

The Changes

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. 

The physical 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.

            Another 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 our souls. 

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.

sunset at Finisterre

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.

            The 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.  

2020 Spring Camino applications

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:

  1. Be a military Veteran from any coalition nation
  2. Completely and legibly fill out the application form for consideration by the selection committee
  3. Have a valid passport or applicable identification card to permit travel to the EU
  4. Have 40 days available
  5. Be able to converse in basic English
  6. 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.

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.


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

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.