Camino Moments

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

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

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

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Another lasting impression felt on our Camino…

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

I walk for you

Skies of grey

Or skies of blue

None of that matters

When I walk for you

 

Sometimes I’m lost

And I have no clue

But I’ll find our way

When I walk for you

 

You left too early

You were gone too soon

But I’ll never be lonely

When I walk for you

 

It gets really hard

And I feel like I’ve failed too

But I’ll never give up

When I walk for you

 

So I’ll make it to the end

And I’ll see this through

Because I don’t just walk for me

I walk for you

 

Paige Lewis

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The Iron Curtain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piotr

I make a point of walking with each Veteran every day or two.  Several days ago I finally asked Piotr what had happened to the finger that is missing on his right hand.  The following is his story:

He was deployed to Ghazni, Afghanistan in 2011 to work with the Afghan National Police.  On a standard mission, they were diverted to perform a “cordon and search” of a suspected munitions bunker concealed in a house in a small village just 15 kilometers south of Forward Operating Base Ghazni.  An area I know all too well.

Once the village was surrounded, his police element moved in.  The Afghans take the lead with the Polish advisors just behind. At first it was just an eerie feeling of walking through what appeared to be an abandoned village, but the hair stood up on his neck when they entered the town square and were facing a line of old men and young boys holding hands in a line facing them.

Piotr had just enough time for the sensation to register that something was wrong before all hell broke loose and the taliban opened the ambush using the line of people as human shields.

Piotr is a big man.  The next thought that registered is that the taliban would pick him as the first target as he was easily the biggest and easiest to hit.  He wasn’t wrong.

The first round went through the flesh of his left arm, just above the elbow.  He didn’t even notice that because almost simultaneously, 4 more bullets stitched across his chest impacting the assortment of grenades, ammunition magazines and ultimately his armor plating.

Next, his right hand was tossed to his side.  He brought it back down to grab his rifle and find a target but something was wrong.  He looked at his hand and his pointer finger was missing. He looked at the back of his hand and saw that his finger was there, but in the completely wrong place..  It didn’t make sense. He took a covered position as the fight ensued, kept trying to grab his pistol to return fire but frustratingly couldn’t grasp his weapon as his finger was hanging by a shred of torn skin.

The fight lasted an eternity of 20 minutes.  The despicable ambush involving children resulted in 2 other Polish soldiers getting wounded.  One died later from the wounds.

With a casual glance, you can’t really tell that Piotr is missing a finger.  The scars on his left arm are more apparent as he is completely adjusted to doing everything minus one digit.

He talks to his wife and 2 daughters every day, they are the center of his universe and he glows with pride every time he talks about them.  He also tells me how his family is worried.  

Piotr is returning to Afghanistan next November for another deployment.  I could see a shadow cross over his face when he told me this.  He is a damned good soldier but also a husband and father now.

In this short time sharing “The Way” with Piotr, I have seen his heart and how big it is.  I’m proud to be making this journey with him on the Camino.

Left to right – Piotr, Dan, Witold arrive in Burgos.        Piotr on the train from Paris.

The first 6 days

Left to right -Giovanni, French Foreign Legion Veteran.  Brad – founder of VOC and USN Seabee Veteran.  Piotr – Polish Navy Veteran.  Dan – USMC Veteran
Witold pauses on the road for a photo

After crossing the Pyrenees, we settle into a routine of walking, eating, sleeping and doing it all over the following day.  Of course those are the main portions of the day, but as we walk, and as we gather at the albergue for the evening, we talk amongst ourselves and we meet the other travelers on “The Way.”

Our conversations cover a lot of territory.  I spend part of each day with each member of our group.  Most of our talks are about the small matters in life, sometimes about powerful and even horrific events that happened during our military service. Veterans seem to speak a different language between each other when the conversation goes down that path. Every day I learn a little more about our amazing group of Veterans.  

I asked Witold what his favorite part of walking the Camino is so far, he thought for awhile and then said that as his body gets in shape from the long hours of walking, he feels better.  Even younger. He has been struggling with blood sugar issues but by actively walking and getting in shape, he feels much better.

Many people believe that the first third of the Camino is about conditioning your body, getting used to walking every day, making your metabolism more efficient.  I think Witold is experiencing this – I look forward to asking the question again once we are on the Meseta.

Crossing the Pyrenees

We had only met in person the day before when we linked up at the airport in Paris, the long train and bus journey to reach Saint Jean had provided some time to get to know one another.  Scratching the surface really.

The night before our walk begins we have dinner together at a quaint local restaurant in Saint Jean Pied du Port, France.  Although everyone is travel weary, we are excited to begin the hike in the morning.

Earlier in the day, we had checked into the pilgrims office and to our surprise and disappointment, they told us that the scenic but difficult Napoleon route that cuts over the top of the mountain was still closed as portions were under snow.  

Jean Baptiste, my French assistant facilitating this trip, and I weren’t satisfied with that answer so we called the albergue Orrison. Its the last stopping point nearly halfway up the mountain so we asked their thoughts on the pass being clear enough to hike.  They said that it was finally clear enough to hike despite the official word stating otherwise.

We took a vote at dinner and decided to make a go at the more difficult, but incredibly stunning Napoleon route.

And so, in the morning. We took the high road knowing full well that we could have to turn back at the very peak if the weather turned or the snow proved too deep to find the path.

Our gamble paid off.  We were able to walk the incredible Napoleon route without incident and arrived safely in Roncesvalles before the sun set, probably among the first 20 or so Peregrinos to make the route this spring.  Tired and sore but very happy, we celebrated with a toast at dinner before getting some much needed rest to be ready to get up and continue walking the Camino in the morning.

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The Veterans and friends ready to begin walking


Piotr makes it to the top, Witold has a selfie stick and Casey Saunier is with us in spirit

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Jean Baptiste plays his guitar in the emergency shelter at the top of the mountain

 

Let the journey begin

Roads go ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.
Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.

– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

One week from beginning the journey, the Veterans embarking on this adventure are checking and re-checking their backpacks and sorting, time and again, the meager supplies that they will carry on the 500-mile French Camino.

The excitement of the unknown, the anticipation of tired and aching muscles, the eagerness to hear and share stories yet untold. The echoes of the millions of footsteps from over 1,000 years of Peregrinos already reverberating in their chests.

Dan, Piotr and Witold have stood the watch. Each have experienced the triumphs and the horrors brought about by battle. And each will undoubtedly find themselves revisiting those moments in the time and space that the Camino demands from each traveler walking The Way.

But we take this journey not only for ourselves, but also for our brothers and sisters who cannot be here with us in person. They will walk with us in spirit and in our thoughts. I will be personally walking this Camino in memory of Casey Saunier – a Marine who stood in the face of evil yet perished by his own demons.

I look forward to sharing what I can of this journey. Learn more about these remarkable Veterans as we leave our footprints on the way to Santiago de Compostella.

Thank you to each and every person who has helped make this possible by supporting Veterans on the Camino. Thank you to the VOC volunteers for their tireless efforts in bringing this all together. In particular, thank you to Jean Baptiste who has been a part of this program from the beginning and will once again be walking with us, carrying his trademark guitar like a troubadour of the medieval times.

I wish you all “Buen Camino” and look forward to sharing this story as it unfolds,

Brad Genereux
Founder of Veterans on the Camino

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The Final Mission

Kat called me to ask a favor. She had worked with me in Africa some years ago and we had become friends, despite my sending her to a remote location in Africa for several months.
“I’d like you to walk the Camino with a friend of mine.”
“Sure thing, tell me about your friend.”
Kat paused, “Our families have been close as long as I can remember, I grew up with Casey. I went to the USN Seabees and he went off to the Marine Corps. He did three combat tours, the first in Iraq and the other two in Afghanistan.”
She went silent for a moment, “He took his own life last December. I’m having a bracelet made and I was hoping you’d wear it in his memory as you walk the Camino.”
“Absolutely.”
I have since had a conversation with Duane, Casey’s father, which left us both choked with emotion. Duane told me more about his son.

Casey was born July 16, 1982 in Lafayette, LA and passed away December 12, 2017. He was only 35 years old.

Early on, he had dismissed the PTSD as something to be ignored thinking it would go away. I’m sure he looked at it as weakness as many Veterans do. He did finally seek help, later. Unfortunately, the help he received either wasn’t enough, was too late to work, or it simply wasn’t the kind of help Casey needed.
Casey didn’t leave a note or explanation. He leaves behind his family, including his five year old daughter, who are understandably devastated.
So, for Casey and his family, I will walk side by side with Casey on the Camino this spring. My steps will be devoted to his memory. The Compostella I receive upon arriving in Santiago will be dedicated to him.

To Casey, a fellow soldier who could not find his peace on this Earth.

 

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