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A Veteran who Found Recovery in the Mountains

November 09, 2017

A veteran who found recovery in the mountains. This is a personal story of healing. Visit idhikethat.com to read this inspiring story.

Veterans can find healing from trauma and PTSD through hiking and nature. This is my story. 

In 2007, I was sent home after receiving an honorable medical discharge from the Army for injuries I received in Afghanistan.  

Being only 20 years old, I became the youngest veteran who was enrolled at the Portland VA center.  I struggled for over a year after my discharge to find any real healing from the PTSD and emotional trauma that I was experiencing.  Eventually, I came to my 20 year old senses and ditched the doctors, therapists, and drugs, and found my recovery in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest.

How did I become the youngest veteran enrolled at the Portland VA center? It's an interesting story... 

In December of 2003, I turned 17 and enlisted as an infantryman in the Army. I never planned to make a career in the military, but I knew at the young age of seven that I wanted to serve after I graduated high school.

Soon after graduating from Infantry School, I was deployed to the middle east.  They sent us to one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan at the time, areas around Kandahar.  That region was the birthplace of the Taliban, and a lot of fighting was happening there.  In the first two months, I was in three short firefights with Taliban outfits.

A veteran who found recovery in the mountains. The squad.

Before the end of my third month, a 17 year old Pakistani kid drove up in his parent’s minivan and blew himself up 7 feet from the Humvee I was traveling in.  I had received over 30 pieces of shrapnel in my face, neck, and limbs.  Immediately, I was evacuated to Germany, and then back to the US to recover from my physical injuries.  A piece of shrapnel cut some of the nerves in my left arm causing paralysis in my left hand.  With physical therapy, I slowly regained control of my hand.  It was the most painful experience of my life.

Eventually, I realized my physical injuries weren’t my greatest obstacle.  

After a couple of months, I was exhibiting signs of PTSD, which I consider my greatest trauma.  Generally, PTSD doesn’t show up immediately after a traumatic experience.  It usually takes time before a person develops signs of PTSD.  On top of that, I sunk into a severe depression. It felt like I had a reverse form of survivor’s guilt.  Somehow, I felt horrible that I had left all of my mates back in Afghanistan to fight the way without me.

For almost two weeks, I laid in bed for 18 hours every day. It wasn’t until a buddy of mine, unaware of my depression, insisted I go to the Astros baseball game. The Wounded Warrior Project took a group of 20 of us. It was the first real fun experience since before I left for Afghanistan.  It was so powerful, it somehow completely snapped me out of the depression. Something about getting away from it all and having fun had a powerful effect towards my emotional recovery.

A year later, the Army honorably medically discharged me. I was sent home and told to immediately report to the VA medical center in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. I was still struggling with PTSD and depression. The following year was spent navigating the VA system to receive whatever care I could get.

Many veterans have a very hard time returning home and never adjust back to the life they had before. On the flip side, there are also a lot of veterans who benefit from the counseling, prescription drugs, etc., but I didn’t find any healing there. A year later with no personal progress, I finally decided I needed to try something new. 

Finding adventure in the Pacific Northwest would become my prescription.

A veteran who found recovery in the mountains bushcraft veteran hiker

To begin, I tried snowboarding. During the winter of 2008, I was snowboarding on Mt. Hood, mostly by myself, about twice a week. I was finding a new sense of normalcy to my life that doctors, therapists, and drugs couldn’t offer me.

The following years, I spent more time in the mountains hiking and rock climbing with my friends. With my war injuries, I couldn’t climb the tougher routes, but I could handle the easier climbs. We frequented Smith Rock and other destinations in Oregon. We also hiked all over the Columbia River Gorge, east of Portland. It’s one of the seven wonders of the world, in my opinion. Little do my friends know how much of a role they played in my journey to healing.

Since then, my adventures on the mountains have expanded. I’ve been enjoying a sport called bushcraft, which is essentially survival camping. In February, my brother and I hiked up Mt. Hood a mile into the upper reaches of the timberline.  I recently summited St. Helens, and plan to summit Mt. Hood in the future.    

Adventure isn’t a guaranteed cure, but what’s to lose?

Donohue wounded warrior hiking shirts family

My love for hiking and the mountains has led my wife and I to I’d Hike That. I thought this blog post would be a great opportunity to introduce myself. My name is Matt, my beautiful wife is Abby, and we have a 13 month old son, Noah. We are two of the four owners of I’d Hike That. We really care about the hiking community and the state of mind that says “I’d Hike That”.

Adventure is more than having fun.  It’s about getting away from the familiar, creating and overcoming new challenges, and connecting your soul with the beautiful outdoors. The mountains are profound, and its intrigue is universal.  There’s something up there that connects with the soul.  I would challenge any veteran or person who struggles with PTSD or an emotional trauma to pursue an adventure of some kind.  Find it, create it, overcome it, and enjoy it.  

 

Have you, or someone you know experienced healing from PTSD through enjoying the outdoors? Tell us your story in the comments. 


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