At Outward Bound we believe that supporting veterans in their transition home is not charity, but an investment. We invest the only way we know how, by offering veterans the opportunity to rediscover themselves through wilderness expeditions that draw on the healing benefit of teamwork and challenge in some of our nation’s most awe-inspiring wilderness locations.
To commemorate Veterans Day we asked Outward Bound Veteran alumnus, David, to share the story of his journey home. He recounted how the challenge presented in the Boundary Waters wilderness helped him to reconnect to his warrior spirit, temporarily misplaced from transition to civilian life. You can find David’s story below.
-by Chad Spangler, National Director, Outward Bound Veterans
The average person of my height and build can survive 15 minutes after falling through ice and into water. At least, that is what my Outward Bound Instructor told me before sending me out onto several inches of ice. I was left there, alone, inside of Minnesota’s million acre National Forest, on a frozen lake, watching the fire I had built from a makeshift recliner I made from logs. Only four days into the course for veterans I started to highlight all of the “firsts” I had experienced, like that terrible joke punch line of “in bed” after every fortune cookie reading. For instance, we participated in mushing a dog sled and skiing…across a frozen lake, used ice screws to set up a shelter…on a frozen lake, started a fire…on a frozen lake, took a midnight visit to the trees…on a frozen lake. I was a walking newbie cliché. In fact, most of the firsts for me involved doing anything on a frozen lake, simply because I have never found it necessary or sane to be in the middle of a forest, sitting on a few inches of ice, all alone, for fun. I was so far out of my comfort zone, yet I felt so comfortable. In fact, I felt alive.
After 13 years in the Army that included three deployments and moving my family around the country six times, I was medically retired. I did not leave the Army in the same shape that I joined. In fact, I left in many shattered pieces. I was lucky enough to have never been shot or maimed, but wasn’t lucky enough to leave the Army completely unscathed. Multiple deployments had left me battle worn and exhausted. PTSD left me sweating at night. I had countless internal injuries that made me feel like an 80-year-old man when going to my pain management appointments. I knew I was broken, but I didn’t look it. I looked like, to most people who didn’t know what my nights felt like, a normal 39-year-old man who just happened to be a veteran. During my last five years in the Army, I tried hard with counselors and physical therapists. I did my exercises and stretches at home, but in 2015, I got to a point where I just couldn’t do it any longer. I couldn’t rationalize the mental pain of being gone from my wife and kids, or the physical pain of doing my job as a soldier. The doctors decided that it was time for the Army to let me go.
My once intoxicating marriage with the Army was over. It was an amicable split. The Army made room for one more officer, and I got to move wherever I wanted. We didn’t need to share weekends or holidays, and it was understood that we really didn’t need to even speak any longer. For the first few months after I left, I easily settled into my new life. I stopped shaving, grew my hair into a giant curly puff ball and moved to Asheville, North Carolina – an island of civilians in a military-dominated state. It is the perfect place for someone to enjoy the outdoors and put the military in the rearview mirror.
I got the job that I always wanted: stay-at-home dad. My wife continued to work and I finally got to be the reliable parent with a stable schedule in the family. Life was never better. Until it wasn’t. After about a year I started getting that same nagging feeling that I had when I was in the Army, at least the last few years. It started off as feeling tired all of the time, then slowly it took over and I felt like I was carrying an extra hundred pounds. My wife and I are active people, but two months had gone by and she brought up that we had not done anything outdoors. She had the patience to sit around the house for two months before saying anything. I owed her something now, and knew I needed a change. Doing nothing would be too easy. And I also knew it would be the beginning of the end.
I was seeing a counselor at the VA (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) regularly, and during one of my visits, I found a flyer about Outward Bound offering free outdoor adventures for veterans. I made up excuses as to why I couldn’t apply for any of the courses, even though the website continued to draw me in, week after week. Maybe it was timing or I was busy – both of which are lies because I am a retired stay-at-home dad – or I was too hurt to do any of the courses. But after hearing from my wife, I knew I needed a change. I knew my excuses had worn thin. Staying at home and making up excuses wouldn’t get me anywhere. Sorting through the Outward Bound veterans courses that were offered, I took several things into account. I am physically limited with several internal injuries and can’t do week-long hikes with a heavy pack, or rock climb. And taking a trip to the deserts of the Southwest would look too much like the deserts of Iraq for my taste; once I left those deserts, I never wanted to return, and seeing them in my dreams was enough. I chose the one trip that I would have ZERO negative association with – dog sledding and cross country skiing.
During my physical exam, I mentioned to my doctor that I was apprehensive about doing this course (out of fear of aggravating any injuries), but wanted to try anyway. He said something to me that reverberated, and I would hear it again during my trip with Outward Bound. Before I left his office he signed my forms and told me, “Don’t limit yourself to what you think you can’t do.” That is something I told soldiers for years while I was in the Army, and it’s when I started to realize that I was disregarding a lot of the life lessons about breaking the mental barriers of physical limits that I had learned in the Army. Turns out, I did have some valuable tools I was overlooking. Other than the physical challenges, and living in the ice and snow for a week, I didn’t know what to expect from the course. I was, however, certain of a few things: 1. I knew that I was getting bogged down from the emotional toll that comes with PTSD and chronic pain; 2. I was in a reflective state of mind, and needed direction to figure out what I had been through for the past 13 years; and 3. I was starting to feel sorry for myself, and wanted that to stop.
I applied. And I was somewhat terrified that I might be accepted. When I was, I knew it was time to face some demons. I had to actually open my Army gear that I had packed away in the garage, hidden for months, and look for cold weather clothes, things that would keep me alive. The packing alone was intense. But I knew I had to go. Arriving at the base camp in Northern Minnesota was an experience of its own. It is a frozen, rustic commune that is seemingly on the edge of the earth. We were placed into seven-person groups, given some cold weather gear and a few cold weather classes. Next we were given sleeping bags, and told that we would be sleeping in the snow outside the doors of the building we were in. They wasted no time getting into the adventure part. It had been a few years since I slept on the ground, much less in the freezing cold, but it was a much welcomed shock to my system. I could feel it beginning to seep back into my bones. There is one thing I actually did miss about deployments; I started to feel alive again.
When we woke up the next day, we packed the sleds, got the dogs and skis, and were taken to our starting point. I expressed my apprehension about taking a few hundred pounds of gear and dogs across a frozen body of water, and the leaders of our group quickly reassured me, “The ice only needs to be three inches thick to be safe.” I was definitely not reassured, but put my trust in the experience of our leaders.
Each day began with our leadership giving the group something to individually think about for the day. Maybe it was something we were grateful for, or something that we wanted to let go of, and at the end of the day we would come together as a group and discuss our thoughts. It was a powerful time. We got into some deep conversations about what it means to be a veteran and how we think civilians view us. No one held back any emotions or thoughts, and no one judged anyone for what was said. That was something I hadn’t felt in a long time. The adventure culminated with a solo day and night of camping on the lake. (Did I mention it was frozen?) Leading up to this portion, I did not doubt my outdoorsman abilities, but I was fearful of what might invade my thoughts while I was alone. I had spent so many nights running from these thoughts, trying to do nothing that felt like being alone and relying on my own sense of survival for fear of going back. Back to Iraq. Back to the desert. The sounds. The feelings. The blood. And now, they wanted me to be alone and on my own with my own thoughts for comfort? It was terrifying. For the past several days, we had some serious conversations that stirred up some memories that I typically try to avoid. I wasn’t sure how I would respond to a night alone, but I was determined not to back down.
Before we were placed in our solo spots, our team leaders gave us journals and some topics to think about and write down. We would all come together and discuss them the next day. I gathered wood for most of the day, and as evening fell, I settled in to my living space. I watched the fire for hours, and was reminded of what many counselors have told me, “…try to be present in the moment… when a new thought comes in to your mind, just ignore it because it doesn’t matter… the past cannot harm you, and the future hasn’t happened yet, so try to be in this moment.” I have never been more in the moment than when I was watching my fire on a frozen lake in Northern Minnesota. I never wanted to leave that moment.
There was a sense of understanding myself that was beginning to happen. Through our group talks I was able to answer “why” to many questions that I had. Why didn’t I want to leave the house? Why did I avoid hiking or camping? Why was I so bitter towards my new life? The answers to those questions were relatively simple. I was scared. Scared of being reminded of experiences I had in the Army. It was much easier to avoid everything and feel safe inside my home, but as a side effect, I was depriving myself and my wife and children of their lives. Of our lives. We had come too far as a family for me to rob us of our happiness because I was scared.
When I returned home, I felt renewed. I had regained a sense of self that had been lost in the confusion of transitioning out of the Army. I felt like my life had a meaningful purpose, and with that I could begin to be myself. I understood that being a soldier did not define who I was, but it was a part of my life that I could look back on with a sense of pride. I did do some pretty amazing things. I still have days where I feel depressed and angry, or scared to leave my house. But I have more of an understanding when those days occur. I force myself to face my emotions, and can explain to myself why I feel the way I do. I am hopefully, finally on the winning side of the fight against my own internal struggle. What I learned out there, on that frozen lake, all alone, is that I am actually not alone. There are others like me.
My family and I have been camping several times since my Outward Bound adventure. My wife and I have a daily workout routine, and enjoy a weekly hike or bike ride through the Asheville mountains. I would not have been able to enjoy life without the help that the Outward Bound Veterans program provided.
“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” -John A. Shedd
About the Author
David Seligman served in the U.S. Army Reserves from 1996-2000, and the active duty Army from 2003 until he was medically retired in 2015. He was an enlisted Soldier for five and a half years, then was accepted to Officer Candidate School where he received his commission and was branched as an Armor officer. He achieved the rank of Captain. David currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina with his wife and two children where he stays busy being a father and husband, while getting outside with his family as much as possible.