Veterans Reflect on War and Mountains
Story by Daniel Duane | Photography by Jerry Dodrill/Aurora Photos
"Just don't ask if we've ever killed anybody,"said Kevin Doyle, 27, a Houston cop and a veteran of the Afghan war. "It's the most private thing in the world."
A tall, fair-skinned man with light red hair, Doyle stood in the shade of a big yellow pine at about 8,000 feet in the western Sierra Nevada. He'd flown to California to join a five-day rock climbing and backpacking course for Iraq and Afghanistan vets, sponsored by the Sierra Club and operated by Outward Bound.
"You'd be surprised how many people ask that question," Doyle said. "Even people who should know better, like a cop in my own department."
Doyle was responding to a request I'd made to him and the five other young veterans in the group--for their help in understanding how best to ask about their war experiences.
From top: An elated Katie Knutson is lowered after a successful climb; harsh conditions are nothing to a vet; climbing and military service create ties that last; vets on the march; happy trails; belayer Kevin Doyle assists climber Matt Couture.
"In some ways," another vet volunteered, "I'd prefer you ask a lot of questions than not enough, just so everything gets said."
After that, our two Outward Bound instructors--guys who've made a career of leading people in the mountains and guiding them toward what the organization calls "self-discovery" and "character development"--had us pile our full backpacks into a trailer behind a white van. Then they drove us to a granite cliff above Courtright Reservoir, a huge artificial lake surrounded by gorgeous white-granite domes. The idea was to give us a little fun right up front and help the group meld by putting us through a day of rock climbing. Then we'd camp out together and head into the backcountry the next morning, on a three-day loop with a peak climb in the middle.
One of the veterans, Katie Knutson, from Eau Claire,Wisconsin, had done some climbing on rock walls at gyms, but all the others were new to the sport, eager to try and eager to somehow loosen up, to begin the process of having a positive experience. Once the instructors had strung top ropes, everybody took turns scrambling and cheering each other on, playing out the usual dramas of fear, perseverance, and success. Meanwhile, I did my best to get all the names straight: Doyle, of course, and Knutson, the only woman. There was also big, strong Matt "Cootch" Couture, 27, a firefighter and an ex-Marine from Chickopee, Massachusetts; small, shy, dark-eyed Adam Connell, 26, an arborist and a former paratrooper from Sharon, Massachusetts; burly Shaun DeCasas, 24, a perpetually chuckling army recruiter and a former rifleman from Minnesota; and Jason Ackley, 26, a giant, fair-haired construction worker and a former army heavy-machinery operator from Michigan.
None of these people had met before, and they'd had widely divergent war experiences. But they'd all heard, upon getting home, about Outward Bound Veterans Expeditions, and they'd all felt some kind of yearning, and they'd all seized the opportunity, and that amounted to something in common. And now here they were, eager to find a way to enjoy themselves, wondering what to expect.
Outward Bound-Sierra Club courses for veterans are held among the peaks of Sierra National Forest, as well as in Florida, Minnesota, and the Southwest. Right: Not a scene from M*A*S*H, just a fresh dusting of snow in the Sierra Nevada as a cold front moves in.
The John Muir Wilderness straddles the Sierra Nevada just south of Yosemite National Park, and when we camped that night on a high granite bluff, we could see a great deal of it: across Courtright Reservoir and up into the High Sierra, where clouds darkened the peaks of the Palisades above Evolution Basin. Splitting us into little crews for cooking, cleaning, and pitching tents, the instructors began a team-building process, and then we all built a big fire. After we ate, the cooking crew boiled water for hot drinks, we crowded close to the flames, and a few basics began to come out regarding everyone's past. Knutson, for example, had had a relatively easy tour, servicing airplane electronics at an air base in Turkey.
Doyle, on the other hand, had been a combat engineer in Afghanistan, doing what he called "route recon and route clearance, driving around looking for IEDs," meaning improvised explosive devices.
I asked if his unit had up-armored Humvees.
"Didn't matter," Doyle said. "When our up-armoreds hit an IED, there was nothing left but axles and bits of people's bodies all over the place."
I was struck by the way the others listened to each person's story: intently, respectfully, but without a single question. When the person stopped talking, the story was over, and that was that. Couture, the Massachusetts firefighter, told us he'd been sent to Camp Fallujah after the heaviest fighting there, as part of a machine gun team to help hold the city.
"For some reason," Couture said, "I pulled greeter-gate duty all the time. I don't really know why."
The greeter gate is the camp's outermost entrance. For seven months, in other words--when he wasn't in a guard tower--Couture was the first warm body that would have been encountered by incoming suicide bombers.
DeCasas, who had a relentlessly upbeat manner, as if always eager to show that he was doing fine, having fun, had gone to Iraq with an army quartermaster's brigade--the troops who run big supply warehouses. He'd been on a lot of convoys.
"Driver?" I asked.
I pictured DeCasas in a Humvee roof turret with a machine gun. I said, "Wasn't that the most dangerous job of them all?"
DeCasas grinned as if it were no big deal. "I loved it," he said. "I was like, 'This is awesome.' I was on permanent volunteer for it."
The group's mood did change, though, when Ackley shared the nightmare that he couldn't shake. He'd been sent to Iraq to operate earthmoving equipment--to rebuild airstrips and lay concrete foundations--and was in his base's Morale, Welfare, and Recreation tent when a mortar round hit.
Running outside the tent after the explosion, Ackley found a young military police officer with both legs and a hand blown off. Later, Ackley was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and was refused reentry into the military when he tried to enlist for a fourth tour; he still can't sleep without medication. He said he was unemployed; clearly, he had no idea what to do with his life, having meant to spend it in the very army that no longer had a place for him.
Looking around the fire, watching the warm light flicker on the faces of the soldiers, I could see compassion for Ackley, and a sense that he was perfectly entitled to talk about this, but I could see nothing else--not the slightest hint of whether any of the others suffered in the same way.
The next morning, I woke up to find the side of the tent frozen fast to the sleeping bag that I'd pulled tight around my head. I stepped out of the tent to find an inch of powdery white snow. Storm clouds hung low in the sky, and we could see torn fragments of mist moving across the silver waters of the reservoir, far below our camp. Once in a while, some quirk of heat and air pressure would send one of these fragments ripping upward into the main body of a cloud, as if sucked away from the liquid water. And I felt grateful, loving the way that weather can bring a mountain trip alive, setting it apart from the rest of life.
After breakfast, as the snow continued to fall, we walked into the backcountry--nearly a group by now, marching along, wondering aloud at the last few songbirds still flitting around the frozen woods.
In front of me, on the forest trail, was the one soldier who hadn't talked much the night before, Connell. I could sense that he didn't much want to talk to a journalist, so I tried to be careful, and while I can't say whether I was successful--can't say, I mean, whether I caused offense--I did get him to tell me that he'd enlisted in the army right after September 11, 2001, while still a high school senior. Connell, strong and in good shape, walked vigorously. He said that when he enlisted, he asked for airborne--he wanted to jump out of airplanes. After graduation, the army sent him to Vicenza, Italy, with the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
Then, in March 2003, as the Third Infantry Division made its high-speed charge toward Baghdad, Connell and a thousand other young U.S. soldiers climbed into C-17s and flew out over the Mediterranean Sea.
Three of Saddam Hussein's armored divisions were moving to confront the Third Infantry Division, so paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne had been sent to create a distraction. Before the flight, Connell and the others had been outfitted with packs weighing around 130 pounds, plus chemical-warfare survival gear, until each paratrooper weighed around 300 pounds.
The guy behind Connell jumped too quickly, slamming into him as Connell's parachute opened. The two chutes tangled, and the other guy hung limp--Connell thought the man had died. Connell neared the ground with the other paratrooper still tangled on top of him, and they landed together. But the man was unconscious, not dead.
The 173rd held the drop zone for a few days. They moved out to back up a Special Forces unit and then headed for Kirkuk, where they occupied an air base for 10 months. Back in Italy in 2004, Connell was training for Afghanistan when his father became terminally ill with cancer.
"So I got a compassionate reassignment and went home," Connell said. When his contract was up, Connell was discharged, earned his arborist's license, took up skydiving, and used his G.I. Bill benefits to enter the New England Academy of Art, where he studies photography.
That evening, after we'd hiked eight cold, uphill miles and pitched camp, I found Connell alone, far away from the group, looking through his camera lens at a blue finger of lake. One never knows how the world looks to another, but I do know that slender, leafless trees reflected in shallow water and white slivers of snow made for stark contrast.
Later, I asked Connell what he remembered most about his time in Iraq--if one particular memory stood out.
But I'd crossed a line, or edged up against one: "I'd prefer not to talk about that," Connell said.
Over the years, I'd been to the Sierra Nevada mostly in July and August, the only months when the meadows green up with grass and flowers, and the sun comes down warm, and you can swim comfortably in the high, cold lakes. I'd been there in winter a few times too, when the Sierra becomes white and silent, more peaceful than seems possible. I'd even been there in spring, when melting snow bares muddy mountainsides, and creeks grow dangerously full, and everything seems to move toward warmth and life. But I'd never seen the Sierra in the fall like this, a season turning cold, dormant; I liked the novelty, a familiar place made new.
But so cold. The instructors had us each fill a plastic bottle with boiling water, slip the bottle into our sleeping bag, and then do calisthenics to raise our body temperature before bedding down. But while the bottle worked beautifully, it couldn't make my 20-degree-rated sleeping bag warm enough for single-digit temperatures, and I woke up shivering in the wee hours. For the rest of the night, I alternated bouts of sleep with flutter-kicking inside my bag to warm my legs, and dawn came as a tremendous relief.
Gathered with the others around a morning fire, preparing for our big peak ascent, I came to learn that Couture felt uncomfortably dissociated from his daily life--as if the war had changed him in ways he still didn't understand. On the upside, Couture said, he'd returned from war to a deeply comforting world of family and friends, and he'd landed that firefighting job with the Chickopee Fire Department, along with other veterans. He told me several times during our hike toward a snow-covered mountain that he loved being back in New England and that he wanted a family--at least five kids. He was ready to turn the page.
As we threaded our way through slippery, snow-blanketed boulders, gaining altitude and heading for a sharp, high knob, Doyle said he knew what Couture was talking about. By way of illustration, Doyle said that on his third day "in country," he'd been caught in a complex ambush, meaning the enemy had used multiple firing positions to create a "kill box."
Doyle was driving the second of three Humvees in a convoy headed up a dirt road along a dry riverbed. A rifleman was seated next to him in the passenger seat, and a third soldier stood manning the 50-caliber machine gun in the roof turret.
Suddenly, they were hit by rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire coming from a few hundred feet away. The commanding officer, in the lead Humvee, allowed his vehicle to stop in the middle of the ambush, trapping the whole convoy in the kill box. But the roof gunner, manning an automatic grenade launcher, did a terrific job.
"I watched him vaporize the two Taliban in the machine gun nest," Doyle said, "and then a couple other guys."
Then a rocket-propelled grenade penetrated the rear compartment of the lead Humvee, right in front of Doyle, and exploded inside the cab.
"It took off half my sergeant's face," Doyle said, his expression impassive. The soldier who'd been in the roof turret took the blast and shrapnel in his legs, which were badly injured. Then the vehicles started moving out of the kill box, and Doyle and the others loaded the wounded out of their vehicle and into a Black Hawk helicopter for evacuation. Moments later, a pair of F-16s roared in 100 feet off the ground and pounded the Taliban positions, ending the engagement.
Couture, DeCasas, Connell, Knutson, Ackley, and Doyle managed to squeeze together on the summit of that little knob, clearly happy to be there, and I realized that, once again, I was seeing something I'd never seen before, despite all the years I'd spent in these mountains: almost the entire southern half of the Range of Light, from where it rose up from the Southern Californian deserts, across the Whitney Crest, and clear north to the Minarets and the Ritter Range, around Mammoth Mountain. And when I looked west, peering into the agricultural haze of the Central Valley, I could make out a bit of the Coast Ranges, far away.
"I feel that a part of me is still there," Doyle said, thinking of the story he'd told. "A part of Afghanistan is still in me, and
a part of me is still in Afghanistan. The ambush was on my third day, and from that moment on, Afghanistan has been welded into my mind."
And here's what I liked about the way Doyle said this, and about Doyle himself: He didn't say it like it was good or bad; he said it like it just was, a fact of life, or at least of his life, from now on.
Daniel Duane, a frequent contributor to Sierra, last wrote "The Great American Read Trip" (September/October 2009).
This article was funded by the Sierra Club's Military Families Outdoors program, which connects service members and their families with our natural heritage.
Photos by Jerry Dodrill/Aurora Photos