Corporal Mujica, long before the days I went by the trail name “Horsecake.”
Over the years, I’ve had time (and plenty of therapy) to accept my time in the Marines. I no longer spiral out of control as often, or drown in my despair.
Of course, things are never perfect. I still get up in the middle of the night and “patrol” my house. I still have issues with depression and anxiety. My mind might linger on a memory or two, if I allow it to drift for long enough.
The outdoors were a huge source of comfort for me when I rejoined civilian life. I made peace with my mom’s death while on a backpacking trip in Big Bend. I realized just how much my then girlfriend (now wife) meant to me on the Pacific Crest Trail.
When you're all alone, with nothing but the grinding sound of your trailrunners against the hard stone, your thoughts consume you. It can be unrelenting, unsettling, and uncomfortable at first. And, then slowly, it becomes calming, clarifying.
When I can’t go backpacking, I try to reconnect with the outdoors in other ways. Like going for day hikes, a bike ride, or in this case, a brutal trail run in the brutal Arizona summer. The TownShirt Co. Sun Shirt and Fractel Cap help keep the sun off.
Even when I was in the Marines, the outdoors were a source of enrichment. My favorite part of infantry life was sleeping underneath the stars on a near daily basis; my first real experience with the outdoors.
One of the hardest training operations a Marine can undertake, Mountain Warfare Training near Bridgeport, California brought about hardships that most Marines can hardly bear. Yet still, even during the toughest moments, I had enough awareness to look around and realize I was in one of the premier mountain ranges in the world. My mind constantly warped between misery and wonderment in meteoric fashion.
Me and my brothers resting during Mountain Warfare Training in the Sierra Nevada.
In Afghanistan, during multiple deployments, I learned to enjoy a cool breeze on a warm day, or the vastness of the Milky Way across an unbound midnight sky.
For me, the outdoors is a hallowed realm of understanding and unconditional love, much like a loved one’s embrace on a hard day. Without the outdoors, I don’t know if I would be where I am today, which although isn’t perfect, is a far cry from the days I lived right after my second combat deployment. I am in debt to the streams, trees, and rocks of this Earth.
'Next Round is On Me'
I’ve never been quite comfortable with hearing the words, 'thank you for your service,' even in everyday life, let alone in the middle of the backcountry, where we often go to escape our everyday experiences.
Most veterans didn’t join the military to receive accolades or admiration. Rather, we felt compelled to join a cause higher than ourselves, at the expense of our own needs. It was a personal choice made by the veteran, in agreement with the government, for a period of time. No one else was involved, outside of the veteran’s family, of course.
A sandstorm during my second deployment. Because of the low visibility, we left the safety of our tents and went out on a patrol to extend our field of vision and protect our patrol base.
I understand the sentiment, to be sure. The United States military is a voluntary force set to defend the country if under attack, as well as defend our allies and ideals across the world (how you feel about the second half of that sentence is another discussion entirely … ).
In essence, these volunteers, who make up seven percent of the total population, are sacrificing their personal freedoms and potentially their lives, in order to maintain the way of life for the larger 93% of the population. To summarize, we were never asked to join, and truly joined out of a sense of duty.
I’ve had this discussion with different veteran friends over the years, and can say that I am not alone in saying that receiving a “thank you for your service” can feel awkward at times. I acknowledge that it often comes from a place of well-meaning gratitude.
Conversely, though, it can often feel as though it is just an empty social gesture akin to “good morning” or “how’s it going?” When this happens, the meaning of the phrase is reversed, and in fact, diminishes the service.
This is a shelter my fire team made in 2012 during Mountain Warfare Training. It’s funny how so much can change throughout the years, yet so much stays the same. I laughed out loud when I saw this, because after all the experience I’ve gained backpacking, what I see is excellent campsite selection. I even still sleep on a thin foam pad, like the one pictured.
Additionally, you might not know how we feel about our time in the military. Many of us struggle with the experiences we’ve had and the friends we’ve lost while in service, resulting in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We might not want to talk about our time in service, so bringing up the military or extending the conversation might not yield the positive effect you intend.
I only mention this because sometimes these interactions can be cumbersome for everyone involved, and I just hope my advice can help both parties. If you feel inclined to say anything at all, just say something genuine and from the heart. A simple “thank you” or nod will also suffice as well. Maybe don’t even say anything; sometimes space is enough. If all else fails you, a “next round’s on me” will always win us over.
Living with Trauma
A rural Afghan village. Picture taken during my first deployment.
I sat down, winded after climbing hundreds of feet in switchbacks, stark raving mad with frustration and thirst. I slapped my hand down and connected with a small cactus, which I had failed to see in my deranged debased state.
In dynamic fashion, I flung the cactus off my body, leaving several barbs in place in my haste. I clenched my fist in rage, exacerbating the pain, and prepared to let out a howl to terrorize the world.
Right before I let go of all inhibitions, I opened my eyes and saw the empty quietness of the desert stare right back at me. There, in Big Bend National Park, I stopped; and with my guard down, was gobsmacked by a stream of consciousness flowing from the recesses of my memories.
The last picture I took while in the United States, before my first deployment. I didn’t know it then, but I was about to become a whole different person.
They soon consolidated around my mother. My memories of her, and the stories I heard about her youth. It had been four years since her death, almost to the date. Something I had quite never come around to terms with, given our sometimes fractured relationship.
The experience slowly began to shift from old echoes of a past life, to contemplating and understanding who she was. What she had done for me. What she had sacrificed to ensure I lived a good life; a life better than hers.
My pain shifted, and I began to sob quietly and uncontrollably on the side of this mountain, next to the hole where the cactus had been. I wept for what felt like an hour, just baking under the harsh Chihuahuan sun.
After a while, the sobbing slowed. I gave out a large sigh of relief, as if I had reached some sort of catharsis. “Thank you,” I whispered back. I then quietly got up, slung on my pack, and continued up the mountain, picking the thorns out along the way.
I’ll always remember that moment; the moment I finally came to terms with my mother’s death. I had a similar moment on the Mesa de Anguilla, grieving my dog’s death.
I’ve relived my first encounter with an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) more times than I have fingers, while walking along the desert. Much like I was on that day, October 30th, 2011 in Afghanistan, near sunset.
I have relived saving THAT Afghan man’s life, in early November of 2012, countless times.
But with time and contemplation, two things you have plenty of while on trail, I’ve come to somewhat understand what these moments mean to me. What they’ve done to me. That doesn’t mean I’m “healed” by any means. Just that I’ve grown to not be controlled by them. To flip into a frenzy by them. To live with the grief and trauma, not to be consumed by them.
An Afghan soldier in a watchtower. I often wonder what happened to the few friends I made over there, especially after the collapse of the country in 2021.
Good to Know! Military & Veterans Access Public Lands Free!
In December 2021, President Biden used the powers of the Alexander Lofgren Veterans in the Park Act to make it so that Veterans and their families, as well as the surviving members of a family whose service member died during military service, known as Gold Star Families, can access public lands at no cost.
The new “Military Pass” is a free lifetime entry pass that allows a veteran to bring one full vehicle, or up to three other people, into national parks, as well as other federally regulated lands. Some parks offer discounted camping fees, and other amenities as well.
These ‘free of charge’ public lands benefits are also offered to active duty military members, as has historically been the case.
Many states offer benefits to their veterans as well. For instance, when I lived in Texas, my Texas State Parks Pass was free of charge, as I had a service-connected disability of 60% or greater. The pass was good for myself and one other person; and when I received it, the Park Ranger told me it would be valid for 99 years.
In California, a service-connected disability of 50% or greater entitles the holder to the use of all basic facilities (including day use, camping and boating) in California State Parks at no charge.
Check with your state’s park service for details on their veteran benefits. In my experience, the process is extremely painless and well worth the effort.
Rafael is a freelance writer and adventurer based in the Mountain West. You can find him trail running, backpacking, or sampling the best tacos during his free time. Follow all his adventures over on Instagram, or read more of his work over on his website.