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Seeking Higher Ground

In the mountains of Idaho, a group of injured war vets seek relief from wounds—some obvious, some invisible. The path to healing, it turns out, depends less on where they are or what they do than on the comrades they come to know.

Text by Natalya Savka | Photography by Glenn Oakley

When the seven veterans gather around a hardwood table to reflect on their first day of camp, only Margaux Vair does not speak. The 26-year-old retired military police sergeant scrunches her eyebrows as she listens to the others. Curiously, her forehead does not likewise furrow—a side effect of an experimental Botox treatment that was expected to relax her damaged nerves but didn't, and that makes her expression hard to read.

Graciela Marroquin says she is grateful to have met another female combat medic. Beth Wolf, whose fused spine forces her to stand at the table, says the same. La'Sonda White, a soldier for 10 years, recites from a letter that her nine-year-old daughter recently read to her over the telephone: "Dear Mommy, you've been nice and sweet always since I've been in your stomach."

The Humvee behind her exploded. It could have been her humvee, but that is not how it was.

When the talking ends, Vair is the first to head to her room. It might be because she woke before sunrise to catch a flight from Ohio to Idaho and the Higher Ground camp for injured war vets. Or because she has a headache, has had a headache for four years, always that stabbing pain in her left temple. Or maybe it's because of the altitude—the camp takes place in Sun Valley, about a mile above sea level. Most likely it's because, as Vair will later say, "if I knew this camp had anything to do with feelings, I wouldn't have come out."

As a teenager in Lakewood, Colorado, Vair thought she'd grow up to be a star soccer player. In her four years on Alameda High School's varsity soccer team, she scored 76 goals and had 24 assists in 58 games—though the legend among current students is that she scored 200 or maybe even 300 goals. Because the thrill of play gave her goose bumps, Vair joined the military right out of high school with hopes of playing for the U.S. Army. She never got to. Instead, she went to war. Now, more than three years after her discharge, she plays on an indoor soccer team on Thursdays, against her physician's advice. "That's my happy day. The other six days I spend on the couch."

Statistics suggest that, at the close of Higher Ground's one-week women's summer sports camp, Vair will be more satisfied with her "overall quality of life." The veterans who participated in the organization's recent snow sports camp reported an average 17.7 percent life improvement, according to a questionnaire, demonstrating what the people who run Higher Ground were hoping it would demonstrate: that outdoor recreation enhances postwar rehabilitation.

"Watching you running and walking and working up a sweat—I want to be able to do that."

Some of the women who've come to Sun Valley for this weeklong retreat apparently do not have such positive expectations. Before the camp, one said, "What am I going to do in Idaho? Watch a potato grow?"

"They hesitate because we're telling them to leave their homes and go to the middle of nowhere for a long time," says Sean McEntee, Higher Ground's program manager. But getting the veterans out of their houses and together is the most therapeutic part of the process, he says. "They form a support network that's there for them after camp."

Higher Ground is a branch of Sun Valley Adaptive Sports, a nonprofit that provides outdoor recreation to people with disabilities; this year, Higher Ground received a grant from the Sierra Club's Military Families Outdoors program. Since 2006, it has hosted about 200 post-9/11 veterans and their supporters (a spouse, relative, or friend) at its fly-fishing, river adventure, snow sports, and water sports programs. These programs—and transportation to and from—are free for the vets and their supporters, as are three years of follow-up care and their choice of sports equipment to take home.

Higher Ground specializes in serving vets with hidden wounds, such as traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mental illness, or some combination thereof. Vair, whose hair hides her physical scars, says, "I know I look fine."

Knee-deep in pond water, Vair lifts her fishing rod, rears it back, then flicks her fly toward a passing rainbow trout that appears to be eyeing a pair of hovering blue-striped damselflies. She watches the insects, hoping to land her fly softly, naturally, on the water above the fish. A breeze of sage and dust blows by. Then she bends her elbow, back-casts her line . . . and hooks a bush.

"Yay," she deadpans to Rachel Cisneros, her supporter and friend of 13 years.

"That's a big one."

"I'll do better than that." Vair untangles her line from the foliage, then aims at a brook trout. Soon the scene takes on a lazy rhythm, interrupted by five more catches: two bushes and three trout. On the water, Vair says, her head is in the same time and place as her body.

At the lunch table, Vair puts her head down.

At dinner, when asked to reflect on what she learned that day, Vair fails to mention the fishing. Like most of the participants here, she has attended vet camps before, one of which introduced her to the basics of fly-fishing. Plus, she already knows how it is to be completely present, or, as she puts it, "in the zone." It's something she learned on the field and in the field.

So she says, "I learned to hug a ball," because this morning she lay facedown on a yoga ball for the first time. She has a way of emphasizing the final word of every sentence, so it's hard to tell when she's being sarcastic.

Shortly After Vair received the try-out instructions for the Army soccer team, she was deployed to Camp Rustamiyah, a forward operating base outside Sadr City, to provide security and to train Iraqi police in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

On March 3, 2007, she was driving the first Humvee in a convoy through Baghdad. Her friend Ashly Lynn Moyer was in the vehicle behind her. Vair had met Moyer in the barracks on a Sunday night two years earlier, after everyone else had ditched out on sweeping the hallways, and from then on, the two women got the job done, whatever the job was, and the one challenged the other to do better. They also happened to share the same birthday: same day, same month, same year.

That March afternoon, Vair drove through the 100-plus-degree-Fahrenheit heat on roads that seemed to have more potholes than pavement. She suspected every roadside pile, every dead donkey, every child who yelled, "Mister, mister, chocolate!" of harboring an improvised explosive device (IED). She wore 50 pounds of gear, including a Kevlar jacket.

At one point, her attention shifted to a place in the road where she'd seen a dead body the day before. Now the corpse was gone. When the Humvee behind her exploded, she searched in vain for a fire extinguisher that someone had borrowed and neglected to return. Then she sprinted into the kill zone with a fire blanket. She says now that she might have run right into the fire if her sergeant hadn't yanked her by her vest. "I just wanted to grab Ashly out of the truck."

It took two hours for the Humvee containing Moyer and her two comrades—Sergeant Brandon Parr and Sergeant Michael Peek—to stop burning. Vair says that Moyer is or was her soul mate and, in the same breath, that she is not spiritual. Vair showed no sign of injury until 10 days later, when her left eye refused to blink. She underwent brain surgery in Denver and never returned to war.

She was diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia (nerve damage in the face), occipital neuralgia (nerve damage in the upper neck and back of the head), fibromyalgia (widespread pain in the muscles and connective tissues), neck strain, traumatic brain injury, and PTSD. She still hurts when touched, particularly on the thighs, lower back, and left side of the face, and there is always what feels like a softball shoving into her skull. But it's the PTSD—depression, fatigue, anxiety, guilt, and a sense of isolation—that makes her dread getting up in the morning.

It turns out that Vair did not sustain her physical injuries on the day her friend died, but three months earlier, when another bomb blasted her into a turret. In the months between those two explosions, she must have had headaches, but she did not notice them. "I guess you could say I was in the zone," she says.

Sometimes she wants badly to get back to that zone, where the past and the future are too distant for regret or worry. In a Humvee, on the water, on a soccer field—that's when Vair feels "nothing."

Near the end of camp, the women visit an art gallery to hear a talk by retired U.S. Navy captain Gerald Coffee, who was held captive in Vietnam for seven years. Coffee speaks about the importance of making wartime count for something positive. The gallery is lined with photographs of starving African children. "I wish I could give them some of my fatness," La'Sonda White says.

When Coffee says, "You are the chosen ones," Vair's lips get thin. She unfolds and refolds the corner of a brown paper napkin. She watches a corner stool—three-legged, chipped, and lacquered brown—and then Coffee's floral shirt. Seated in the front row, Vair has no place to hide her tears.

"I was trying hard not to cry the entire week, and then he had to go and say those two words, 'chosen ones,' and I bawled my friggin' eyes out," she will later say.

The Humvee behind Margaux Vair exploded. It could have been her Humvee, but that is not how it was. If she is the chosen one, then Ashly must not be. But why is Ashly not? If Margaux is the chosen one, then she must get off the couch and get a purpose. If Ashly can no longer go on with her purpose, then, for Ashly, Margaux must find a purpose. But Margaux cannot yet figure out what that purpose is, and she wonders sometimes whether Ashly would already have that purpose figured out, and would be doing a better job of it.

And that, Vair will later say, is the big trouble.

Regularly, Higher Ground staff and volunteers ask the veterans if they liked the last activity, if they liked the activity before that, if they are doing all right, if they are sure they are doing OK. The vets say "yes" and "good" and "thank you." One night, after golf and swimming, there is a stale pause when chef Guy Robins asks who would like to season the halibut tacos and dice the onions and tomatoes for the pico de gallo. The former warriors, separated from their supporters for the night's activities, slump around the kitchen's perimeter.

Then Vair approaches the countertop, and as she slices a tomato, Graciela Marroquin nods in time with the blade. It's not clear from the nodding whether Marroquin is impressed with Vair's knife skills or just plain tired, like a baby being sedated by a mobile. Then Marroquin steps in to help with the onions.

After dinner, the veterans eye the staircase to their bedrooms as a staffer announces a belly dance class in the backyard. The stars have come out, and the temperature has dipped low enough to make arm hairs stand. Beth Wolf, in cargo shorts, says that she has no interest in donning the glittering hip scarf that has been offered to her. She does so anyway. It's lavender, and it jingles when she shimmies.

A couple of songs in, Vair sits off to the side. As the women make tired attempts at neck slides, she says, "You all look like chickens." She bites the beginnings of a grin.

They do look like chickens, except for Wolf, whose body flows easily. When the women form a circle, Wolf shows them a dance called the microwave. By popular demand, she narrates as she moves.

This is how you do the microwave: Rock the hips and twist the wrists as you open the door to the imagined oven. Slide the food right in. It might be a mug or it might be a bowl. Now remember the hips. Now close the microwave and punch the buttons on the timer. As you wait, look left, look right, repeat. (Look left, look right, repeat.) Perk the ears when the timer rings and open the microwave. Sip or spoon and remember the hips. That's the microwave.

The women laugh sleepily. When Vair smiles, she shows teeth.

The night ends with a group reflection, during which Wolf, who wanted so badly to stay in the military that she hired a civilian lawyer to fight her medical discharge, says that dance might be her new passion. She laughs after she says it, so it's not clear if she's being genuine.

On the floor and with heavy eyelids, Marroquin rubs her bandaged feet—one wrapped in black, the other in white. Lifting patients and toting a 50-pound medical bag in the field has left her with fallen arches and a bad back.

Marroquin does not say that she is good or OK or all right. She says, "Today was a hard day for me. On the golf course, watching all you running and walking and working up a sweat—I want to be able to do that. And I want to go home and get on my kayak, but I can't use it because I can't lift it onto my car. And I don't want an inflatable kayak. I want a real kayak."

"I want to play real basketball, not wheelchair basketball," says Wolf, whose fused spine lets her walk but not run or jump.

"And I didn't want to cook or dance tonight," Marroquin continues. "The only reason I cooked was because Margaux cooked." And Vair says, "I cooked only because you cooked."

Natalya Savka wrote "My Life as a Diver" in the September/October issue.

This article was funded by the Sierra Club's Military Families Outdoors program. For more information on the Higher Ground program, go to


Sean McEntee, Higher Ground Program Manager, on getting injured vets up off the couch

How does outdoor activity affect postwar recovery?
It gets vets away from their TVs and their computers. It gets their blood flowing again. One time I was fly-fishing with a vet, and he looked at me and said, "This is what we fought for." He had tears in his eyes. If they're not going to go out and enjoy the freedom to be in this amazing environment, then what did all these people fight for? Did they fight just to have the right to sit on their couches all day?

Also, involving the vets' supporters in all outdoor activities is a huge part of what we do. If the vets want a bike, we'll give them a bike, and we'll give their spouses a bike too. It's important for them to enjoy the outdoors together, to push each other.

Does the military treat veterans effectively?
The VA (Veterans Affairs) system isn't consistent. Some vets love their VA, but some can't stand it. There are so many staff turnovers that, even if a vet does get a good relationship with somebody one week, that somebody could be in Siberia the next week.

There are long-standing programs for people who've lost an eye or a leg. But those with traumatic brain injuries weren't coming home 20 years ago, because we didn't have the technology to save them. Now they are, and the military doesn't know what to do with them. They're given disability pay and sent to their couches.

How many dollars do we spend on training these soldiers to kill people? How much do we spend reintergrating them into society? The numbers don't match up.

What do veterans take away from your camp?
We light a spark under their butts. There are people who've been saying for years that they're going to kayak or play with their kids, and then they go home after camp and actually do it. One vet was told he could never sit on his bike again because of his back, but he knew he could, and we knew he could, so we helped him get a mountain bike, and now he bikes all the time.

Also, a lot of vets think they're alone. Then they come out here and experience the same sense of unity that they used to get in the military. After camp, they know that there is someone out there who feels the same way, even if they're a hundred or a thousand miles away. They can call that person when they're having a bad day. —interview by N.S.

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