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For war-weary veterans, a dose of “adventure therapy” can help them ski off the war

A four-day mission took veterans across the Sneffels Range and through “Break-a-Bone Meadow” to help deal with their demons. “This can be a cathedral for people,” one vet said.

A group of veteran Green Berets traversed the Sneffels Range in early March as part of a program that uses "adventure therapy" to help war-weary soldiers. (Courtesy Anne Ryan)
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RIDGWAY — It’s nearly dark when the team arrives at the Blue Lakes Hut. After slogging nearly eight miles through melting snow, they celebrate their arrival with steaming bowls of mashed potatoes. 

With socks and boot liners dangling from the rafters, the team of former Green Berets rib and tease each other. They poke fun at the skiers who fell. They’ve nicknamed the features that challenged them as they climbed up and skied down the valley and hills beneath Mount Sneffels. They all hated “Suck Hill” but not as much as “Suck Alley.” They survived “Break-a-Bone Meadow.” 

The men haven’t seen war in a long while. With a combined 100 years of service among them, their time on the trail as they traverse the Sneffels Range is a reunion of sorts, with all the camaraderie of a mission. Minus the bullets and bombs. 

“We call it adventure therapy,” said Chris Crum, a former member of the 10th Special Forces Group. “It’s so peaceful going through the woods. The snow, the views. It’s complete solace. You can completely escape and put everything that has happened in the past behind you and enjoy — really enjoy — that specific moment.”

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Almost 20 years ago, Crum met Joe Ryan, who built a series of huts across the San Juans and western Colorado in the 1980s. Crum was looking for regions where 10th Special Forces soldiers from Fort Carson could train in rugged terrain. Today, along with Ryan’s wife, Anne, the trio are offering the huts and guided trips to soldiers not just for training, but recovery. The trip last week with former leaders of Green Beret missions that spanned the world was part of that effort to reach soldiers returning from war and offer a chance to heal in nature. 

They call it “Skiing Off the War.”

“You are dealing with men who have conditioned their minds over the course of a career to deal with abnormal situations and make them normal. It’s just the way it is,” says Paul Mundt, who served 20 years with the U.S. Special Forces. “You lose a brother, you go through a mourning process, a burial process where it gets tucked away and you just keep moving forward because you don’t really have a choice. That’s for the active duty guys, but as you get older, we are all just struggling. Well, not struggling. We are all discovering ways and processes to sort of get our heads back to normal. I want to be a good grandfather, you know. Of course we have all seen some things. Some really shitty sides of the world, and in the end, we are just trying to increase our quality of life and our internal quality of life. We need to. We have to.”

Shawn Datres, Paul Mundt, Bailey Shaw, Doug Stenor, Michael Santoro, Joe Ryan, Anne Hilleman and Chris Crum were part of the Ridgway nonprofit group Leads Serves’ second annual “Skiing Off the War” mission, which saw the former Special Forces soldiers and one of their daughters skiing four days across the Sneffels Range of the San Juans. (Courtesy Anne Ryan)

Veterans die by suicide at rate 1.5 times more than civilians

With the country nearing 20 years of continuous war, soldiers are returning home with years of battlefield experience. And the transition has not been easy. More than 6,130 veterans died by suicide in 2017, almost 17 a day, according to a 2019 report by the Department of Veterans Affairs

Since 2008, more than 6,000 veterans have taken their lives every year. That’s part of a national trend, with 45,390 Americans dying by suicide in 2017, up from 31,610 in 2005. In 2017, veterans accounted for 13.5% of all deaths by suicide in the U.S., a rate about 1.5 times that of civilians. 

“That suicide rate is unbelievable. Sometimes it feels like it’s more than the people we lose in the field. The trick is to get them before this kind of thing happens and get them into an environment like this,” says Doug Swenor, who spent 21 years with the 10th Mountain Group at Fort Carson. “Days like these can really help immensely. This can be a cathedral for people. You can find God right here in these mountains.”

The men in Blue Lakes Hut are weary. They are massaging their feet and taping blisters. The 16-by-16 hut does not smell nice. As they talk, they share an exhaustion that reaches beyond their nine-hour slog that day. The winds of war still resonate, years after they’ve left the battlefield. They share memories they can’t discuss with friends and family. They share experiences that few will ever know.

“Civilians don’t understand the stressors that come with having been in combat,” says Michael Santoro, who spent 29 years with U.S. Special Forces, serving in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. “There is a lot of stuff we dealt with in the military and now, to be able to have something like this, with this camaraderie with my brothers, where we can sit like this and talk like this and about some of those things we saw. We are joking and cutting on each other, just like we are back in the team room. And we have become a team. It’s amazing. Such a big stress relief for me.”

The losses the soldiers have experienced continue beyond the years of war. The dark memories can pile up. Barely four months ago, Mundt’s wife died by suicide. He admits he hasn’t dealt with the loss as well as he probably should. He’s locked the pain away, just like he did as a soldier. He calls it compartmentalization. It’s “a necessary psychological tool” for a soldier, he says. 

“It allows you to do the work you need to do. But the danger is as these stressors build up, you don’t have an outlet. We need an outlet like this,” says Mundt, sitting on a bottom bunk near a red-hot wood stove. “I just lost my wife to suicide. And the scary thing is that I’m able to compartmentalize that. It’s something I’ve been trained to do for more than 40 years; to take enormous stress and put it in a place and lock it down and then explore it occasionally. But I’m learning that I’m probably not as good at it as I think I am.”

Mundt says he’s not the type of guy to sit with a therapist. He’s seen fellow soldiers go for that kind of help “and they just end up on all kinds of pills.” 

“That’s not for me. That’s not who I am,” he says. “But this is like group therapy with my brothers in this beautiful environment. For me to be able to just say, ‘I lost my wife.’ Wow, you know how good that is for me to be able to say that to you guys and get that off my chest? Just to say those words, you know, and then go through the emotion with the skiing and the views and the camaraderie and have the time on the trail to just to work through all these thoughts with you guys in this place. It’s just vitally important. I feel so blessed right now.”

Michael Santoro leads his fellow retired Green Berets from the Blue Lakes hut as part a of a four-day ski mission across the Sneffels Range as part of the second annual “Skiing Off the War” program. (Jason Blevins. The Colorado Sun)

Vets reflect and honor their old colleagues

The five former Green Berets on the ski mission through the Sneffels Range worked together in the past. But their real connection is through Col. Billy Shaw, who led many of their teams on assignments in far-flung, dangerous lands. Shaw is the main reason they are there in the sweltering hut, gulping melted snow and eating dehydrated stew. Shaw died in December 2018. His daughter Bailey is there. She’s skiing with men who knew her when she was born and watched her grow up. 

“When you took off your sunglasses when I met you the other day — I haven’t seen you since you were probably 8 or 9 years old — and when you took off your glasses, I almost broke down,” Swenor says. “You might not have seen it, but I was really close to losing it. I see Billy in you. I served with your dad for three years. I loved him. I look in your eyes and I see him.”

Bailey Shaw is 25 now. She lives in Denver. She admits a bit of hesitancy in coming on the trip and hanging with a bunch of men she can’t remember. Out on the trail, they told her stories about her dad. She hung on every word, soaking up perspectives she never knew. 

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“I feel like I’m in this stage of grief where I really want to talk about my dad because I miss him so much,” she says. “You are like family. People can say ‘I’m so sorry’ until the cows come home, but hearing these stories and hearing about some funny-ass things you guys did together, oh my God, that just makes my day.”

She recognizes the pain in Mundt’s voice when he talks about his wife. Like Mundt, she wants her dad’s death to mean something more than aching loss. 

“I feel like at the end of the day, what can you possibly take away from tragedy? I think it’s about raising awareness and trying to help other people,” Shaw says. “Whatever painful feelings you may be having, we can’t just brush it off and ignore it. I think we need to seek out help. Whether it’s talk therapy or group therapy or skiing for nine hours or a mix of things. I feel like you guys, you know just as much as I do the weight of destruction that comes from something like this. It really makes you think about extending your hand to someone you know is struggling.”

That’s a sentiment shared by Joe and Anne Ryan. Joe Ryan started building the five San Juan Huts in 1986 and developed a Telluride-to-Moab hut system for summer mountain biking. His focus on helping vets has seen him guiding blind veterans from Grand Junction to Moab, and paralyzed vets on hand cycles from Telluride to Moab. Crum and the Ryans three years ago created Leads Serves, a Ridgway nonprofit that serves veterans and their families with hiking, skiing and cycling trips through the San Juans. 

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“The hope is that the impact becomes exponential as these guys go home and round up more friends and families,” says Anne Ryan, who serves as executive director of the nonprofit and envisions programs that work for soldier couples and children of soldiers as men and women return home from war. 

For three summers, they have hosted hiking soldiers and their families on trips they call “Walking Off the War.”  

“Walking Off the War” came from WWII veteran Earl Shaffer. In 1948, he was struggling to transition to civilian life when he set off with a heavy pack. His family asked him where he was headed. He told them he was “walking off the war.” He was the first person to hike the 2,185-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. 

Outdoor adventure serves as an alternative to talk therapy

“This is a thank you from us to you and this is your trip. You call the shots,” Anne Ryan says to the soldiers who are helping her develop a plan to recruit vets for the Leads Serves programs. “Talk therapy and cognitive therapy is certainly a tool, but if we did that, would it be half as effective as what we did today? Research shows that what we did today is so much more supportive. To create a team, to have a vision, to be with brothers and sisters and have it be an authentic human experience instead of a canned one where you sit around and talk.”

A growing number of groups are working with vets as they return home bearing the scars of war. When soldiers have spent so many years in combat, they remain at war even when they leave the battlefields. The former Green Berets aren’t sure what the military’s role should be in preparing these soldiers for a transition to civilian life. But they agree that role should not just be distributing medications. 

“At the VA, they just give you handfuls of pills. I’ve got so many friends with PTSD and they won’t go to the VA because they dope them up,” Mundt says. “They don’t want to walk around in a haze. They want this life back and they are not getting the help they need from the government. That’s why people like Joe and Anne and nonprofits like theirs are so, so vitally important right now. It’s so vital that we have these things available and these programs like this are becoming more precise and focused on really critical needs.”