Michael's Dispatches

Suicide Claims 14th Marine From a Unit Battered by Loss


07 January 2016



This unit is getting hit hard by suicide. Nobody seems to know what to do. I have a humble idea...

The idea came to me during the wars.  Sometimes when I took a break from Iraq or Afghanistan, I just went for a long walk. Not too long, just a couple hundred miles or so, but after finishing the walk, you are ready to go back to one of the wars.

For instance, up in Nepal, in the mountains, you are up there walking all day in the sunlight. There are no televisions, very little communications. Well, you can take a cell these days, and I took a sat-phone that often did not work due to the mountains.


Often I walked alone.  Other times with someone I met on the trails until our paths split.  I hired porters to carry my books and gear. Very cheap, and that left my hands free to practice photography.

And one day it occurred to me.  This is what veterans need.  A long walk in distant mountains, in the sunshine.  When you finish at night, you shower under a bucket and eat fresh foods and read a book and wake up with your face planted in a book.

Eat breakfast and walk all day again.  Do this for a couple or a few weeks and you are good to go.

So I thought, imagine if the military did this for returning units. Take the whole unit to Colorado and walk in those mountains for a couple weeks. Let them bring their families.  It would be a great time.

For veterans, the VA could set up annual events like this in the Rocky Mountains, or the Appalachian trail.  Invite all veterans and active duty during the best month, and just start out on the trail and walk a couple hundred miles.  Welcome the public, the cops, firefighters, office people who need some fresh air.

image005Walk a couple hundred miles in the mighty Himalaya and the wars fall further and further behind.

Years ago, I read about a World War II veteran who said he witnessed terrible things in the Pacific war.  So he went for a walkabout -- the entire Appalachian trail – about 2,000 miles.  As I recall, he said that fixed his spirits. (If anyone remembers where this is written, please say.  It may have been in a book about the Appalachian trail.)

I am sure veterans would feel great every day, and make new friends.  They would not be sitting around remembering bad things.  They would sleep at night because they would be too tired to do much else.

Maybe private citizens could arrange something more effectively. Have a big banquet at the end, speeches, maybe some celebrities, Aerosmith, that sort of thing.

I am no expert, but walking in the mountains made me feel good and fresh to go back to combat. Just a thought.

Postscript:  After I first published this on Facebook, many people posted links to organizations who already are doing this.


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  • This commment is unpublished.
    lblanchard · 5 years ago
    To your question, Earl Schaffer, 1948. First person to walk the entire Appalachian Trail.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Pat · 5 years ago
    Sounds like a great idea by just getting away from the rat race and complications of everyday life and walking it away.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    John - Frmr ANG Capt · 5 years ago
    I forgot where they go but it's outside of the U.K. All Brits when they are done with their deployment are required to go to -this spot- to decompress. I want to say while I was on a British camp in Afghansitan I read/heard it was a hot topic. Obviously bean counters who never deploy were probably questioning sending their entire armed forces on "holiday".
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jonathan white · 5 years ago
    We quickly realised that even a short UK type tour of 6 months causes a lot of issues. The answer was to take them to Cyprus (Island in the Mediterranean). Get off the plane, go into a big hanger with about 600 beds, stip off all your clothing , get into your swimming trunks, bus to the beach, sun bathe, eat ice cream, swim, play on the inflatables all day, move into a different hutted area for some briefing on what to expect when you get home (different to the USA) and then have a Brit BBQ, pint and a fight, comedy show, more beer, crawl off to bed in the early hours. Get up 6 hrs later to find pressed uniforms ready, super food and fly home. Meet the family for two days - 4 days of lazy work and then 4-6 weeks off. Seems to work for most of us. We still have issues but, I like to think we got it mostly right. It fits the UK, not sure if it would fit you guys. Also tied up some guys with the Escapelines walks google ww2 escape lines and they are all ex forces who take serving ex and families over escape routes in Europe. Good luck, God Bless.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tom Hatch · 5 years ago
    Sometimes the simplest of ideas are the best.
    Good thinking!
    Be safe.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Steve Butcher · 5 years ago
    Michael, great suggestion. My experience for what its worth - I returned from back-back tours with 1/7th Cav in Vietnam in October 1968. Took leave in December, drove to Aspen and skied for more than a month. I felt the anger and angst receding. Found a balance that I think only comes from being outdoors. Keeps things in perspective. With a few exceptions, made it an annual thing since then, which is going on 50 years now.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Pete Flynn · 5 years ago
    Some months back Backpacking magazine featured an article about this and the positive results. It's not a "slam-dunk", but the vets involved have reported that they are less troubled and anxious. These guys need unstructured time and something to let them fully normalize to an absence of threat.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    C Glick · 5 years ago
    When I lived in Japan, on the island of Shikoku, I heard of at least one veteran of Afghanistan setting off on the 88 Temple Circuit, a Buddhist pilgrimage that essentially follows the perimeter of Shikoku. It is the smallest of the four main islands, safe, quiet, with varied scenery. Shikoku residents sometimes help pilgrims--o-henro-san--along the way. Completing all 88 temples purges you of your worldly sins.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Deidre · 5 years ago
    Thanks, Michael, for the fine suggestion and sharing your experience.

    Being without all those interfering communications devices can be a great stress relief, too. The world's problems you left behind will still be there when you return, but being without the many articles full of horror or political wrangling or gossip or economic news is a blessed relief. And so, taking a long, long walk with only a good book (or the Good Book) to read could definitely bring about a needed healing.

    Thinking outside the box must be done in order to save the lives of our troubled warriors. They deserve every consideration and assistance necessary to bring them back to themselves and their families.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Alexandra · 5 years ago
    Mike - a buddy of mine has turned his 65 acre ranch into a place for wounded warriors and their families. Please contact LTC(Ret) Michael Tachias at mike@cabazonhaven.org. It is located in New Mexico. Another brother in arms giving back...the motto of Cabazon Haven is "Once a Warrior, Forecer a Hero"

    Thanks to all of my fellow warriors...
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Dale · 5 years ago
      Alexandra, I've done a search for your buddy and his org. & I can find neither. I work with a number of vet groups and would like to speak with him. Would you please put us in touch with each other? Thanks.
      • This commment is unpublished.
        Joe · 5 years ago
        It looks like it was a spelling issue on Alexandra's post.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    J. Christian · 5 years ago
    I love this idea and hope that a program could be organized for our guys transitioning from combat. I know that just getting out in the woods has been a great therapy for my normal person problems. There are lots of great parks to organize walk a bouts in the US. Come to think about it, I wouldn't mind getting lost in Glacier National for a long while.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Barry Sheridan · 5 years ago
    Despite the technique of decompressing as practiced by British units returning home, suicides amongst veterans here continues to be a worry. Although fast tracked help for service men and women is available through the National Health Service it is not enough. The fact is that shaking off the experiences of conflict can be difficult, although the majority manage it to some degree. In his book, titled 'The Other Side of Time, Brendan Phibbs who was a combat surgeon with US forces in Europe during WW2, noted how after many years of busy post-war life, he returned to face his own past. There was plenty to mull over including the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. Where he was fortunate was that his life since was spent in Wyoming, not only plenty of space, but also a family and career, so perhaps Michael you are on to something. Certainly being bottled up in city with little respite from the hubbub of modern life cannot be considered ideal therapy for a troubled mind full of brilliant images of horror.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dan Ward · 5 years ago
    When I got back from Vietnam the first movie I saw in a theater was 'Junior Bonner' starring Steve McQueen. I marveled at somebody could totally focus on staying on a Bull for just 8 seconds, shutting out EVERYTHING else. Now, I see the most harried and seemingly dissatisfied people are those constantly on their "Smart" phones. Also remember Arnold Palmer once saying: "When you're on the gold course, be sure to stop and smell the flowers."
  • This commment is unpublished.
    L. McCarron · 5 years ago
    Thank you for your words on this heartbreaking dilemma. "Warrior Hike" is one of these types of interventions I had heard about years ago.

    Food for thought: EMDR was discovered by someone taking a walk. No doubt a connection there.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Lorenz Gude · 5 years ago
    The response by vets is testament enough that Micael's idea isn't just a whim. I'm a bodyworker who works with the residue of trauma in the body (retired now). My experience tells me that unresolved trauma remains in the body in the form of tensed up muscles clenched against the possibility of recurrent incidents. You can see it easily in the body language of a dog that has been beaten. That tenseness stops things from moving on and builds up and makes people feel stuck. It needs to be worked out and the one thing we have done as a species since before we have even been considered human is walk - endlessly in search of food. That is why walking is such good exercise - we were built to do it. And we also process whatever is bothering us that way. It just naturally comes up into our minds and we work it through even as we cope with the details of the trail and perhaps the pursuit of lunch. Put another way it gives nature a chance to heal us.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Patrick · 5 years ago
    Outwardbound.com has a program where for 6 days combat veterans are able to undertake wilderness expeditions on the mountains for free.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dan Miccolis · 5 years ago
    Pete Flynn nailed ii in his last sentence " normalize to the absence of threat"! We were put on a plane in Nam and in less than 12 hours back in San Francisco! 12 hrs....
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Neil · 5 years ago
    RVN 67-68. Tet Offensive, Discharge & home in 48 hrs. If the Army had required some decompression time before they cut us loose, it might've helped. Most of us (8 or 9 graduated '65 HS together & were in & out of RVN w/in 2 to 6 yrs) confronted, dealt with; ignored &/or deferred the PTSD, etc. issues that we dragged along for many years. Nonetheless, our lives went on & came out OK, to one degree or another. Most of us are, if not old men already, see it just ahead. Point is, nobody tried to end it by their own hand. Why does this generation not image a longer life-story for themselves? I dunno the answer, but I will agree that a time to decompress, @ the beginning would have been very helpful. I took that long walk over many years...just a few steps @ a time.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    albert johnson · 5 years ago
    Some might call me a quitter but I think it is time we got our soldiers out of that country. The Taliban is getting stronger and more deadly. Bring them home now, and let's build up our country.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Martin · 5 years ago
    Taking a walk can definitely save a life! Great idea and I would be honored to walk along with some vets and get out of the office for a week!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Vanessa · 5 years ago
    My son came back from 2 tours in Iraq with PTSD.
    He was driving around on the highways at up to 100 mph only Our God saved him from hurting himself or others.
    He finally received help from the VA and he started training and running in marathons. All that running saved him, I know it did. He was trying to escape his memories of course
    So your idea is great.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tony · 5 years ago
    Switzerland has some excellent hiking routes, and several of them are part of the Camino de Santiago/St. James Way/Jakobsweg religious pilgrimage to Compostela. The Camino has routes all over Europe from many of the cathedrals. Some day, I would like to make the pilgrimage from Speyer, Freiburg or Strasbourg, which were the cathedrals for most of my ancestors (depending on the era). The routes are marked with a seashell. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camino_de_Santiago
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