Photograph by Mark Leffingwell
Community Builders Stacy Bare and Nick Watson
Two veterans use the outdoors to build community among soldiers returned from war.
“War creates sacred moments, both good and bad, that we hold on to the rest of our lives,” says Stacy Bare, co-founder of Veterans Expeditions. “The outdoors are where we can go to create new moments, generally without the negative. Nature reminds us that the coolest, biggest, baddest thing we’ve ever done can be in front of us. It gives us a reason to live.”
Veterans Expeditions sprang from a dire need. As the U.S. began winding down its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at the end of the last decade, soldiers returned home to begin civilian life. Many grappled with injuries or post traumatic stress disorder. Earlier this year a deeply troubling statistic emerged: In 2010, 22 veterans took their own lives each day, according to a report by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In 2010, the now 35-year-old Bare met fellow climber and veteran Nick Watson. They shared a similar thought—could the outdoors help their fellow veterans as it had for each of them? Bare, who works at the Sierra Club and served in Iraq, had received a small private donation from a friend of a friend with the marching orders to put his idea in motion and get veterans outside. But he didn’t know how to organize a guided trip. Watson, now 40, had spent his post-Army Ranger years guiding and leading wilderness therapy trips, but drifted between jobs and communities across the West. Both had struggled with their own medical issues and the emotional trauma of active duty and found relief in the outdoors.
It started humbly. That first year, the duo pulled off two trips and got a total of 18 veterans out on weekend trips. In 2011, they summited Wyoming’s Grand Teton with a team comprised of veterans to commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Momentum grew and pretty soon Watson and Bare's personal project grew to include a support network of caseworkers, medical advisors, guides, and noted climbers like Conrad Anker and Timmy O’Neill.
“We try to push up to people’s limits as safely and successfully as we can,” says Watson, who served in several different countries prior to the second Iraq war. “There’s a fine line. We weigh that carefully.”
In 2013, Bare and Watson got 250 veterans involved in their expeditions, training programs, and community-building programs. Based in Denver, Colorado, the organization opened chapters in the Pacific Northwest and Northeast. They paddled and fished Alaska’s Togiak River, climbed iconic peaks in Washington State, and traversed New England’s classic Presidential Range.
The goal is to keep growing the number of small, community-driven trips while preparing, training, and building funding for bigger expeditions into the world’s great ranges. Watson is planning a Veterans Expedition trip to Denali in 2015 and hopes for a shot at Everest in 2016. While the weekend goal may revolve around a summit, the greater aim is to reestablish the sense of community veterans lose after returning from war.
"My trauma is unique in how I got it, but the fact that I've got it is not," says Bare, who still struggles with a head injury. "What we are doing works for veterans. It works for cancer survivors. It works for survivors of extreme poverty. It's not just veterans that benefit from the outdoors."
Adventure: It seems like you aren’t just helping your fellow veterans, but that climbing has played a big role in your life since returning from war.
Stacy Bare: Climbing gets me up every morning. Suicide, for a really, really long time, was a daily thought process. Now it’s something that happens once a week or a month. Those thoughts are now framed by images of laughing with partners around frozen waterfalls, mountaintops, and crags. It feels like that hopelessness, that desire to end it all, just gets overwhelmed by all these other images and memories and people.
A: How do you know when Veterans Expeditions is working?
Nick Watson: Some of the best conversations, the breakthroughs, happen on these one-day meet-ups where you just go hike or climb casually. The local meet-ups are the heart and soul. That’s where the community building happens. [Participants] now have folks they can call up and say “Let’s go up for a hike.” Even just call up and say “I’m not doing so well.” That’s the basis of community. That’s our biggest success story. Folks are continuing to get outside, even if it’s just on a basic level.
A: You’ve had some big name climbers like Conrad Anker participate in your events. How has the climbing community responded?
SB: There’s been no shortage of “Hey come climb with us” or “If you’re headed through there, let me introduce you to my friend.” It’s just so overwhelming. It feels awesome and incredibly humbling.
NW: The biggest asset we have right now is a tremendous amount of folks who really believe in what we are doing and want to be a part of it. Some of those people are extremely skilled and extremely knowledgeable.
A: Is there a trip that has stood out for you in the last few years?
NW: In 2011, we put together a Grand Teton trip. Some folks had good climbing experience, and some folks had no climbing experience. Some folks were struggling with different disabilities. The team crushed it. Everyone knew their role. Everyone had trained really hard. We just climbed the mountain. When we summited it was the tenth anniversary of 9/11. It was kind of heavy for a lot of folks. We hit the summit early, at the exact time the first plane hit the tower ten years prior. To the minute. A lot of folks worked so hard to be there. A lot of folks had lost people. It was one of those amazing experiences we have in the mountains where everything just clicks. It was effortless, perfect, not a rough moment on the entire trip.
A: There is a lot of manpower and money being devoted at a high level to combatting suicides among active duty service members and veterans. It seems like you’ve come up with your version of a solution. Why did you feel like it was your duty?
SB: Throughout history, when warriors return home, there has been this tradition of going to the wilderness. We went and fought for our country. We signed on the dotted line. Now we have a role to help our veterans through their trauma. As veterans, we have a responsibility to each other and to our country to make sure that we continue to fight for ideals such as public democracy. I have yet to see a better representation of that than our public lands system. That’s where these activities play out.