My inspiration for deciding to pursue this worthwhile, yet extremely challenging endeavor began with my interactions with Veterans of the Vietnam War.
Just shy of a year and a half after leaving the Army, I left my private sector job and moved all of my worldly possessions into storage. An ironically similar scene looking at the storage unit filled to the gills; I had done this once before prior to my yearlong deployment to Afghanistan just like thousands of other Veterans of the current fight, doing the year on-year off lifecycle. However, I was not heading downrange again. I was accepted to the Warrior Hike Class of 2014, and would spend the next six months hiking on the Continental Divide Trail with five other Veterans. The intent of the program was to give Veterans some time and space away from the fast pace and distractions of daily life to reflect on their war-time experiences. While I thought at the time that I had 100% processed everything I had been through during my time in Afghanistan, the hike and the past two years have made me realize I hadn’t, and in some ways continue to process it. My personal intent was to give myself six months to figure out “What my next passion would be.” I realized watching guys move boxes around a warehouse in private sector logistics certainly wasn’t it; that is a hard ask of someone that used to pilot a helicopter in one of the most challenging and dangerous places to fly in the world. I overestimated the time I would need to “figure out” my next passion; it took six weeks, not six months.
People (and in my estimation, women more than men) sometimes say, “Everything happens for a reason.” I have always thought that line of thinking was garbage. I go out and make things happen, and I am pretty sure guys like Teddy Roosevelt would have agreed… “I am the Master of my fate, I am the Captain of my Soul.” However, on May 9th 2014, something happened that changed my life. After hiking with some pretty serious blisters, I was stopped in my tracks quite literally by cellulitis, which had spread into my blood. I was septic. I had to suck up my pride, put the hike on hold, and get to the ER. This was in Grants New Mexico. The group continued on while I took 5 days off the trail. A Vietnam Veteran named Larry Wiles from Albuquerque New Mexico offered to come get me, put me up for a few days with him in Albuquerque and then drive me up to Cuba New Mexico at the next trail town at the end of the week to meet up with the crew. Larry had to attend a Veteran event on Thursday May 15th, and invited me along.
The event was the middle route of the “Run for the Wall” riding though Albuquerque. A buffet style meal was being put on for the 250+ motorcycles’ worth of riders who had started in LA and were on their way to Washington DC for “Rolling Thunder” for Memorial Day weekend. I have been around a lot of Veteran’s groups, and witnessing the camaraderie amongst this group of mainly Vietnam era Veterans nearly made the hair on my arms stand up. Here is a group of guys that had a shit fight in a jungle, got treated horribly when they came home by their own countrymen, and here they were 40 years later; one of the most cohesive and gelled groups I had ever seen. As I took the scene in I noticed that of the 250+ bikes, 30-40 of them were GWOT Veterans who had joined in to ride to the Vietnam Wall with these guys.
The wheels started turning in my head at that point: this tradition… these traditions, all started around their memorial. Their war memorial had brought these men together. And their camaraderie had drawn in my generation, the new GWOT era Veterans. But at the same time, I looked around and realized something, “These Vietnam era guys, at their age, they only have another 10 or so years of riding Harley’s and Goldwings cross-country.” The next big bulk of Veterans is my era, the 30-40 already joining in on this ride. We will hit a tipping point in the next 10 years where more than 50% of these riders will be more and more non-Vietnam Veterans. It begged the question, “What will my era’s Veterans ride to?”
That’s how it all started for me: a blister, a chance encounter, and an idea. I had nearly four more months to gain information, do a “mission analysis”, and think on the trail. “How would I do this?” “Who could I get to help?” “Would there be buy in”. My business professor’s would say my idea wasn’t an idea at all, but rather that I had identified a market opportunity. My mind isn’t wired that way. I don’t see markets. I don’t see price tags. I don’t see insurmountable obstacles in the form of out dated legislation.
I see an opportunity. I see group healing on the horizon. I see opportunities to honor and remember our friends that didn’t make it back. I see an opportunity to open up a candid dialogue between what has become our warrior class and those who have come to understand that warrior class less and less over time.
We need a memorial to honor, remember, heal and educate… and I will not rest until that happens for my era of warriors.