As you may have noticed, by a rising number of groups and accounts on social media, there is a rise in the “outdoor exploration” departments of the internet. One of the fewer known ones, deals with veterans, using the outdoors, to help cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
To many, this may just not sound like something that might help them. They were either born in the “country” side of the United States, where they were always in the outdoors, anyways, or (like me) grew up a “city slicker” and has grown up with being spoiled by the lifestyle that comes with living with millions of people around you, in a small area. But to understand how this rising therapeutic ideology may help you, you must first look at what it’s actually doing to an individual. It may not be the actual hiking that is helping people, but everything that comes with the hiking experience as well.
…like.. how does it all help or work, even?
I’m going to pitch this from a veteran’s points of view, but I feel that many people who did not go into the military, but maybe just want another form of help with just stress or depression, can take this and learn from it.
One of the many things NOT talked about, when it comes to Veterans, and dealing with the trying to bring awareness to the number of veterans that commit suicide a day, in the United States, is how most veteran’s feel once they get out of the military. I had the opportunity to have an assignment close to the base I was stationed at, when I was enlisted in the Marines. I flew in, from Houston, Texas, to the airport of Charlotte, North Carolina, and then took that smaller aircraft to the town of New Bern, North Carolina. I immediately tried contacting people whom I thought were still in the area, and was able to locate a buddy who was a Sergeant when I got out, and now, was a Master Sergeant. So, needless to say, I had the V.I.P. military treatment that I never experience from just being a Corporal or Sergeant. I immediately noticed how young EVERYBODY looked. Not just the pilots, themselves, but even the contractors whom were working there, which are almost always made of prior enlisted. I was 34 in 2017 by the time I was able to get back to MCAS Cherry Point, NC. The last time I was here, I was 23 in 2006.
I went to a couple of the squadrons, looking for challenge coins for friends. Everyone looked like they should still be in school.
Obviously, at the age of 18, one feels like they are an “adult” as you are legally allowed to smoke cigarettes, and join the military to “fight for your country” at this age. You have a driver’s license, you can open a bank account, have a job, you are out of high school, you can choose what to do in your life (in most cases) without having to worry about going a building from 8am to 3pm to learn math and science, anymore. You have that paper, whether it’s a G.E.D., High School Diploma or certificates, and you can choose to keep going to school or work and earn some money. Get an apartment, buy a car. I mean, that’s a lot of responsibility for someone, just joining society as an “adult.” (…you can do hard core jail time, if you fuck up, now… no more mommy and daddy.
Our wars are fought by young men. The Marine Corps runs on 18 to 23 year olds. Let’s be honest here, yes, higher ranked people make the decisions, but the ground work, the physical labor of building things and breaking down of equipment, moving stuff, cleaning up, police calling, and all the “working parties” were almost always “volunTOLD” Privates, P.F.C.’s, and Lance Corporals. The lowest ranked guys did all the actual, physical labor. I was an Avionics Technician for the AV8B Harrier jets, while I was in. At 20 years old, I was troubleshooting electrical problems on a military aircraft. Sometimes, by myself, depending on how many jets needed to be fixed. I was an “adult.” “Look at me: I dropped this Internal Navigation Unit, which is really heavy and painted gold, because it is “worth it’s weight in gold.” The handle broke, so it wasn’t my fault, but the Desk Sergeant doesn’t care if it’s your fault or not, he is screaming in your face regardless, because he has to tell Maintenance Control what Lance Corporal Amaya just did.” (True story, they gave me the receipt, it was way over $100k. …so like, $100k of government spending in the summer of 2003 was purely me. You’re welcome. Your tax dollars well at spent. Don’t worry, I redeemed myself later in my career, by fixing a jet in minutes, and launching back out, while we were escorting Air Force One overseas. Also, true story.)
My point being that very young men, most of which looked like they should be in high school still, are the back bone of the military. That is all I saw, while walking around my old squadron’s surrounding hangar bays. Even the contractors, whom are mostly people who just ended their enlistment and make a lateral move, working on the same aircraft, but working for Boeing or somebody similar, they looked young as well. The pilots looked young. (In my current field, I am the “young one” as everyone is in their early 40’s/ late 50’s, “been in this industry for 30 years now” type of people.) The equipment I currently work on, is not nearly as complicated and important as Harrier jets. It was eye opening to see. You don’t think about it while you’re there, but returning back 11 years later, and seeing how things continued to run with new marines. It was nostalgic, to the point where it made me realize that I didn’t like leaving the Marine Corps. I missed it. I know a lot of us have a bitter sweet mentality towards our service, but physically visiting your old stomping grounds, is another experience. While being escorted around, he called another Marine who returned to the base, as well as my old mentor, who was there as a contractor. I found my mind wandering, piecing scenarios together, trying to figure out what I could do, to move my family back to this place, where my old friends were at. I quickly snapped out of it, caught myself, like “what the hell are you thinking? This is JUST a visit. Calm down, brain.”
But after leaving, having the drive and flights back home to Houston to think about my trip, I tried to make sense of my excitement. I felt energetic, I was so happy to basically reporting back to 3 of my old marine buddy’s, 1 of them, literally my mentor and Staff NCO, as to what I have done with my life since I last left. I felt like a little kid bragging to his dad, about his first day at school. “…and then I got out and sold cars for a year, I was really good at it and made over 6 figures one year, I worked at NASA, I had a radio show, I was a club promoter and teaching at a college at the same time…” It felt good to hear them say “well, it’s good to hear you’re okay, I always wondered if you guys were okay.” I also informed them of the Marines I’ve met up with across the United States in my travels, or have kept up with through social media, after that.
Okay, so the reason I’m telling you about my experience, is because I got lucky and got some sort of “closure” from the way I felt about my enlistment and how it all ultimately went down. I had realized that I didn’t want leave the Marine Corps. The idea of working and retiring 20 years after enlisting at 18 (retiring at 38) was all I needed to hear, to think “that… I want to do that.” But, like many people, the way I was treated, the way the higher ups handled things, and my experiences were what ultimately made me not want to reenlist and just head back home, and try my luck there.
I went to the 1 week class on how to transition into civilian life. I got out, and partied hard for a while, and then got a job selling cars while looking for jobs in the field that I was trained in. I went job after job after job, not finding a good fit. I went from car sales, and making over 6 figures at 24 years old, (ultimately left because it sank in that I went from working on jets to selling motor vehicles) to working at NASA (did you know they’re not part of the government? I did not keep my pay grade or time in service because they are a private company that is just funded by the government. Conspiracy theorists: discuss.) Left because they only paid $15 an hour (fast food employees want my starting wage at NASA) with no overtime, and after jumping from 1 job to another, I finally found one that’s helping me deal with life after the military.
I found out that I got used to the lifestyle that comes with the Marine Corps. Every month or so, we had something going on. Either we had to do some kind of training that we had to mobilize for, or actual deployments, but we were always moving around, for some reason. And even if you were just a low ranking guy, if you were the most senior person, you were in charge. Sometimes, the most senior person wasn’t fit, so you’d have even lower ranked people in charge, based on experience. There was a sense of accomplishment that you felt from the move. A successful deployment even got some people medals and awards, or letters of appreciation. There was always something to look forward to. The change was constant. As a single Marine, with no kids, it was exciting. I got to travel overseas, spend some time in countries I probably will never see again.
…and then, with the transition to civilian life, I was out of my element. Here’s the thing. I went in, like most people, straight out of high school. I’m talking about I graduated on a Wednesday, and I was on the yellow footsteps that weekend. Before that, I lived in a very strict, Christian household. I was extremely naïve to that ways of the world and society. I didn’t understand how things worked. The Marine Corps literally molded me into the individual I am today. I remember going through a website that showed a circle graph of how much of my life, I had spent in the Marine Corps. At 23, 1/3rd of my life had been spent in the Marine Corps. Before that, it was strictly Jesus and high school and that was it. If it wasn’t for being in the marching band, and the school paying for the instruments, uniforms, and trips to football games, and finding my own rides home, my parents would have had me in my room, for my entire life. Looking back, I think I joined the Marine Corps to escape my parent’s house. I had 3 older siblings, and they all booked it from the house as soon as they turned 18. I knew NOTHING, and the Corps’ lifestyle was a main part in molding my ideas, my likes, since I never was able to openly express myself or ideas, before. I’m going overly into detail, because I’m trying to relay the situations that nature has come to help with.
Civilian life is hard because, unlike the Marines, if you fuck up, you don’t get NJP’s and some of your pay taken away, you get fired. There are no more barracks, there’s rent or mortgage. Your free medical benefits are gone. Many of us who transitioned from high school to the military, didn’t experience “freedom” like people who didn’t join the military. The Marines took care of us. In boot camp, they told me where to sit, look here, sign this, here’s your card, you can access money. This is your pin. It didn’t occur to me that I had just opened an actual bank account with a bank, I thought of it like a school “free lunch” card or something, where they put money into. The realization of medical benefits not being mandatory with a job didn’t occur until my first sales job. “After 1 year of employment, you qualify for medical benefits.” And yes, I was told all this, briefly, in that transitioning class I attended, but we’re Marines. Every single thing that we have learned, has been repeated over and over again, it’s beaten into our brains. “Lance Corporal don’t know.” It’s a saying Staff NCO’s use, because Lance Corporals do stupid shit, and they don’t know why they did it.
So we go out into the world, thinking we’re the Marine Corps/ God’s gift to _____ (enter your city’s name here.) I worked on jets in the Marines, so my logic was, if car mechanics make around $50,000 a year, then jets, they must bring in $100,000, EASY. The reality is not even close. I passed up good jobs due to lack of knowledge, and burned bridges due to my ignorance. It wasn’t until a military recruiting firm actually taught me some actual interviewing etiquette and mannerisms during a job fair, where I was able to interview with multiple companies in one day, with possible on-the-spot job offers. (Actually, if you are enlisted or a veteran and need help looking for work, check out and work with the people on this site.)
I ran into a new problem. I realized that after a year or so, the job I was at, though it paid well, started to make me doubt my life choices. The Marine Corps demands an impossible level of excellence that we will never reach, but must strive for, consistently, and a little bit of that stays with us. We are not content. I didn’t want to get out of the Marines, so that made me have a chip on my shoulder. I know a lot of people fall into this category. The routine started to make me go mad. Wake up early, drive to work, eat, drive home, eat, sleep, and that’s it. Go to work and buy stuff. Maybe save up a little and take a vacation to another city. And you go back to the same desk, same routine, same task, same driving route. And you go back to “lance corporal mode” because the civilian side doesn’t really give much opportunities for someone to “step up” and show what they can do, people get hired through their resumes. Just like the “green weenie” there is a “corporate weenie” that screws things up for you. Imagine an endless “working party” doing the same menial tasks, over and over again, with no real end goals, other than to keep your job. That’s basically what it felt like, to me. There was nothing to look forward to, besides the pay checks. I didn’t have time nor the knowledge that it was important to pursue things that make you happy. Working sucks. Obviously, that’s why we get paid to do it, but nonetheless, it’s demeaning to have such responsibility, and go to being managed by civilians, if you chose the employee route.
Like you, I read an article on the internet, about dealing with depression and PTSD. The atmosphere after the military, that I was exposed to at the time, was not beneficial to me. It did not let me have the time to myself, away from distractions, to deal with things in your head. I can save you some money and let you know that therapists and psychiatrists don’t listen to you nor do they tell you 1 sentence that fixes your entire life, afterwards. You have to be the one to realize how to be happy. And with the bullshit that civilian life brings and exposes you to, for someone who’s been taken care of by the military benefits of guaranteed meals, bed, and medical benefits, it’s hard to prepare people for it.
During deployments, while flying around in a C-130 from Japan back to the United States, yes, I was jammed packed around Marines, but I had time to think to myself. I wasn’t talking the entire trip. Smart phones and internet weren’t as big yet, so we didn’t have that distraction. There’s things that you are exposed to, in the military, that nature also exposes you to, that may be beneficial, because it’s familiar tasks. You’re taking a “hump” (hump is Marine slang for hikes) at your own pace. The difference is, you are now taking hikes through some scenic landscapes. Being only exposed to my home state, and whatever bases we went to, I never ventured out to nature much. I knew of Mount Rushmore, and I knew the biggest tree in the world was called General Sherman, but that was it.
Taking up hiking has exposed me to some of the craziest and beautiful landscapes that our country has to offer. Understanding the culture and history of the different states, the land, seeing the terrain change from state to state, makes you appreciate your service more, because you are seeing the other parts of what you were fighting for, besides your family. The land.
Preparing for a hike is like preparing for a mini deployment. Water, snacks, protection, I did that 1 land Navigation course in Camp Pendleton 16 years ago, once… you’re good, trust me.
The thing I found, after hiking a specific location, and taking my fill of pictures and videos, was a sense of accomplishment. “I did it” isn’t something I say to myself, after a long day of work. But in the Marines, we had alot of “I did it” moments.
I got my EGA. I did it.
I got promoted to Sergeant, I did it.
I successfully completed my first deployment as the senior Marine, I did it.
I finished my active duty enlistment, I did it.
These moments come many times a year, because it is the constant movement that come with the military lifestyle. There’s always something to do, besides just your regular job.
You have to understand that you are conditioned to this. Even if you have been out of the military for years, and don’t think it applies to you anymore, I beg to differ. The military is part of people’s lives during some of the most influential years of one’s life. The actions that happen to someone, during their young adulthood, lays out the type of person they will be for life. It’s no different than going to college and become molded into an individual by their criteria.
You were used to getting smaller projects thrown at you, accomplished, and getting commended for it. For years, this was the normal, without you noticing it. And now that we are out, we miss it, without knowing exactly what we miss.
And that’s what I’ve noticed from hiking. On top of being disconnected from the world, I have a sense of accomplishment. I have a list of places I’ve been to and a list of places I want to go.
Grand Canyon- check.
Sequoia National Forest- Check.
The nation’s capitol- Check.
Mount Rushmore- Check.
…it gives you a sense of purpose. The feelings that come with accomplishing something is missing from almost everyone’s everyday life.
Work accomplishments, as a civilian, are not “cool.”
Civilians: “I closed that client’s account today, now on to the next client account that I also must close.”
Military: “I got qualified to shoot a 50 cal out of CH-46 today, by shooting barrels in the ocean from 1 of 3 helicopters, doing figures 8’s around the area, while we got to shoot bullets at the water.”
It’s just no comparison. Working sucks. And accomplishing things that suck isn’t so fulfilling either.
So if you have the urge to feel accomplished, just take a sheet of paper, write down the top 5 locations you want to go to, and pick the cheapest one, and try that. Take as many pictures and videos. Post it on social media, before, during, and after. This isn’t about boasting or bragging to your friends, this is about getting a sense of accomplishment.
…and what better way to feel accomplished than to do it by completed an adventure that you wanted to do.
Remember, happiness comes from within. You can keep looking for it in exterior materialism, but just completing a task, a “cool” task, can make such a difference.