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.