“If you bring forth what is inside you, what you bring forth will save you. If you don’t bring forth what is inside you, what you bring forth can destroy you.”
The combat veteran slumped low in the metal lawn chair that encircled the campfire. He rocked gently as if to shake his words free. With his left hand, he stroked his blonde beard over and over, top to bottom, top to bottom. The dozen people curved round him in the Pennsylvania woods were captive. His southern drawl broke as he described his experiences in Iraq.
“We were doing a road sweep in Fallujah, covering the street with a mine detector. It was pitch black out and we wearing night goggles. That particular road was a mess with mines, it even got the nickname, IED Alley.’ Our first team leader and the engineer spotted a hole in the road where an IED blew up the night before. It had not been filled in and so they climbed in to check it out. All of a sudden it blew.
“I turned on the Humvee’s white lights to find them and when I looked down at my feet I saw pieces of flesh and blood. Then a Marine came running back to me and says, “Staff Sergeant, I found him and it’s just his torso.”
“I went up to him and said a prayer to God for him. Then I walked another 100 meters down the road and found his leg and more pieces. We scraped up his remains with a shovel and put his body parts in the back of the truck. He was my buddy.”
He paused, breathless, raised his lowered eyes from the flickering fire and stared at us. Our hearts pounded in our chests. We felt as though we were bleeding.
“The next morning my truck got blown to shit by an IED. After we opened fire and chased down the insurgents, we went to the hospital. I had traumatic brain injury and my hearing was severely damaged and I never felt normal again.”
I thought to myself, ‘How can you walk up to your friend and find him like that and not have it profoundly impact you for the rest of your life? How could you come back from that?’ I searched his boyish face for answers, his blue eyes shaded by his brimmed camouflaged hat, but when our eyes locked in a moment of compassion, I knew the answer. You don’t.
The retired Marine talking was Steve Clendenning from North Carolina. He was visiting me and my family and friends while taking a break from walking the 2,185-mile national scenic Appalachian Trail (AT). Steve was walking off his war as he hiked the length, rid the demons in his head heal his post-traumatic stress. This was a different kind of mission.
Since 2001, over 2.5 million veterans have returned home from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many, however, have never been able to transition and leave the war behind. This is evident by the Department of Veteran Affairs‘ recent report, which states that over 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Even more startling, every day, twenty- two veterans commit suicide, translating to a loss of over 45,000 soldiers between 2005 and 2011. Steve almost contributed to that statistic.
It was a July afternoon when Steve and his fellow combat hiking veterans came to visit. I picked them up from the trailhead and shuttled them to my home for some R&R. As we sat by the campfire, we passed around a “Talking Stick” to aid in conversation. I wanted them to have the opportunity to open up and share if they wanted to and the Talking Stick was a good vehicle to make that happen.
The Talking Stick is a tool used in many Native American traditions when a council is called. It allows all members to present their sacred point of view. It is passed from person to person as they speak and only the person holding the stick is allowed to talk during that time period. Each veteran shared one story from their time in the military and one story from the Appalachian Trail. Every member of the meeting must listen closely to the words spoken. But the Warrior who held the Talking Stick in my backyard did not need to command attention from the group gathered in the woods. All ears were on Steve Clendenning and not an eye was dry.
“When I came home from the war, I was still constantly on guard. I never sat with my back to an entrance or exit. I was constantly vigilant. Nightmares jarred me awake in the middle of the night to check and recheck windows and doors whenever I heard a sound. I never slept well. I was put on a dozen different meds.”
Next to Steve sits his wife, Ruby Clendenning , a striking, long haired beauty of Mexican descent, who is also a Marine. Her arm unfolds along her husband’s shoulders. Ruby also suffers from PTSD but hers was inflicted via sexual assault in the military. She understands her husband’s pain. Back then, Steve couldn’t go into public places, he was on too many medications and behaved like a zombie. He was in a complete funk, would not shower, nor eat. Then on the 1st year anniversary of Steve’s injury, and losing his friends, he got drunk out of his mind.
Steve continued, “I moved the car out of the garage, opened up the ladder to the attic door and fashioned an extension cord into a noose which I hung from the rafters. I have no idea how I did it. I never tied a noose before. I stood there on the ladder with my phone in my hand, texting everyone I loved. I could not stand the images in my brain anymore, nor the nightmares, and I wanted them to go away.”
At that exact moment, Ruby walked into the garage and found him. It was the middle of the night. When she had rolled over, she noticed he was gone and went searching the house for him.
Steve was immediately put into a psychiatrist’s care and has been meeting regularly ever since. He spent four years at the Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Battalion located at Camp Lejeune. Since he retired from the military, he spent his time going to doctors, weekly counseling, and having brain scans. He gained weight, had a hard time finding peace and then found himself on the Appalachian Trail.
This idea of ridding one’s psyche of demons by walking in nature is not new. The very first AT thru-hiker, Earl Shaffer, did just that in 1948 when he walked World War II out of his system. He had been stationed in the South Pacific, many times on dangerous assignments installing RADAR (Radio Detection And Ranging) and communications equipment in forward areas. He also walked the trail to mourn the loss of his best friend, Walter Winemiller who perished at Iowa Jima. Walter was his pal who trapped and hiked with him as a youth and dreamed of hiking the trail with Earl.
Although the trail was completed by 1937, no person had ever attempted to walk its length in one stretch. This feat was considered impossible. Wartime had taken its toll on the trail, which had fallen into disrepair. Manpower had been overseas, not clipping overgrown trail and clearing blow-downs. Earl spent much of his journey searching for the trail, looking for signs that the trail even existed and wading through waist-deep beaver ponds in the process.
The trail has also been hard on Steve, sixty-five years after Earl, even though the 2”X6” white painted blazes are in place and the corridor is usually clipped to perfection by the hundreds of volunteers who maintain it.
There was a Noro Virus outbreak down in Virginia in 2013 and Steve became so sick with it that he was hospitalized and had to have his appendix removed as a result of the illness. After a five day hospital stay and another eight days recovery at home, Steve was losing it. He missed his fellow Warrior Hikers and the trail terribly and the peace it brought. His nightmares and his anger also returned and one of the closest bouts occurred the day before he visited my home in Pennsylvania.
Steve and Ruby were shopping at my local Super Wal-Mart purchasing first aid for Steve’s blistered feet. They were hunched over the Band Aid section in First Aid, when a 15-year old kid, wearing a hoodie pulled low over his face, zoomed by in a motorized wheelchair. The cart almost clipped them.
“Damn kids playing with those things,” Steve mumbled to Ruby.
Steve stopped the young man. “What are you doing?” Why are you on that? Those are for people who need them?”
“My ankle is hurt,” he says, and speeds away.
A minute later another kid comes flying by, this time a 10-year old girl. “Get off that and leave it right here,” he orders her, but she ignores him. Then Steve sees the hooded boy walk by in the next aisle.
“Hey! Where’s your little buggie? You’re walking just fine now. Your ankle must not be hurt anymore.”
“It feels a little better.”
“You’re full of shit,” Steve accused.
The10-year old girl, who’s looking real street smart remarked, “Oh, you must be real bad ass that you’re picking on little kids.”
Steve says, “He don’t look like no little kid to me. He’s taller than me.”
About this time Ruby is getting upset and anticipating trouble so she runs off to get the manager.
The older kid, with his pants hanging way down below his waist, challenges Steve. “I’m gonna get my dad and he’s gonna whoop your ass.”
“Call him up right now and tell him what aisle I’m in.”
The manager finally arrives on the scene- a skinny squirrely looking guy and Steve informs him, “These kids are running their mouths. You’d better get them out of here or I’m gonna put blood all over the front of your building. You don’t know who you’re dealing with here! You have no idea what shit I have been through!”
The manager escorts the kids out but in a few minutes one returns. Out of the corner of his eye, Steve sees him taking his photo of him with his cell phone.
“You take a picture of me son and we’re gonna have problems,” Steve informs him.
The manager overhears and Steve tell s him again, “I thought you kicked these fuckers out? I’m gonna bounce these kids off a few cars it you don’t get them out of here and call the cops.”
The group is in the front of the store by now where everyone at the registers is watching and listening. An older couple said, “We’re glad someone finally said something to those kids.”
As the one kid walks out the door, he points to his two eyes with his two fingers as if to say, “I’m watching you.”
Steve threw everything all his First Aid supplies in his hands onto the floor and began to chase him. Ruby tries to grabs him and physically hold him back, in vain. The manager begins chasing Steve.
A woman in the check-out line says, “It’s getting hot in here.”
Steve remarks, “I don’t have to watch my back anymore because I’m not on active duty.”
“I’ve gotta get back to the trail where it is peaceful,” he admits, “where I don’t have any of this to worry about.”
“It could have been real bad,” Ruby said to me . “If Steve would have put his hands on those kids, he would have gotten himself in trouble. When something trips his temper, he can’t control it.”
Steve explained to me that anger is what comes out when all the other emotions from the war build up. It is survivor’s guilt. ‘Why am I here and why didn’t those other guys make it?’ Explosive anger is also a reaction cultivated in the military in order to survive in combat. This emotion does not work in normal society however and Steve does not want to be angry anymore. The hike is helping him with his anger issues, but he still has a long way to go.
Ruby told Steve he could not quit the trail regardless of how many times he was in the hospital or sick or injured. He had to go back and finish what he started.
“All I had to do was open up the oven door when the stove was on, and I was right back in Iraq. That oppressive heat flooding out reminded me of exiting the air-conditioned HumVe and the Iraqi heat slamming me.”
Ruby was able to visit her husband twice on the trail as he traveled northward. Every time she saw him, her initial reaction was, “‘I have my old Steve back, but then he would say or do something and I’d know he wasn’t 100%.”
Having him be away on the trail was hard on Ruby. “It’s a sacrifice for us left behind too. I’m not home making fuckin’ cupcakes. I just want the Steve back that I married. And if I can’t, I want him as good as I can get.” When Steve and his veteran friends stopped at my home in PA, they still had 1,000 more miles of walking to help heal.
The forecast for the day of the hiking veterans’ climb was poor. There would not be any far-reaching views of mirrored ponds dotting the land, reflecting the brilliance from the sky. I had seen those types of red-letter days before on the mountain. The route up its south side is a five mile climb covering 4,198 vertical feet. This is a strenuous feat for the average hiker, but the veterans nearly fly up the mountain with so many miles under their belts. Everyone was energized by what the summit held for them. Excitement busted out of every cell as they propelled themselves upward on this final stretch.
Steve was smiling large and looked so light-hearted and happy, when he cruised by, his dark past receding farther into the distance with every mountain he overcame.
Besides the typical sore knees and aching muscles, the veterans also had to haul their war-induced nightmares and memories up the mountains. The trek spurred memories of their years in the service. Images of their dead comrades, the torment of second guessing what they were told to do, questioning why they were left to live while those around them perished or had body parts blown off, this is what they thought about as they climbed. But they also learned how to begin to leave them behind, to deposit them on the valley floors and climb to greater heights of acceptance of their lives and their military deployments. As they hiked from Georgia to Maine, we came to terms with some of the things that we have seen, experienced or may have had to do, just as they have learned to come to terms with steep climbs, rocks and roots, inclement weather.
Hiking the AT made them realize that with tremendous perseverance and hard work, you can come out the other end. It also reminded them how good life can be and to keep going. The healing and the hiking will continue for the rest of their lives.
Steve said, “I might have hurt all day long from hiking up a mountain, but when I got to a lookout and could see forever and reflect on what God has created and the people in my life that I have lost — I realized that I really needed this hike,” he said. “I’m going to live my life for those that couldn’t.”
The veterans’ boot soles followed thousands of hikers who used the trail to find peace, beginning with Earl Shaffer himself, 65 years ago.
As the veterans climbed up and down the mountains on the trail, they also experienced an emotional roller coaster. They shed tears of joy at the beauty of the world and that fate allowed them to stay alive and return home, while their best friends perished. They experienced tears of regret from being made to do horrible things to human beings. They hiked north to forgive themselves. Every story, every path and life was different, but they all shared one big thing- the desire to walk off the war and heal.
Steve was hiking behind me as we approached the summit. He was close enough that I could hear him sniffling as he allowed the emotion of the moment to wash over him.
How long ago did you make the climb as a thru-hiker?” he asked.
They could not wrap their heads around that fact, for I felt like a peer to them.
“There has been so much water over the dam since that day. Over thirteen thousand of us have tramped these steps across Katahdin’s long flat peneplain since Earl Shaffer. This trail gave me a life. And it will do the same for you.”
There was misty fog on the summit when I arrived. From a distance, the Warrior Hikers figures were ghostly, diffused. The large wooden sign stating, ‘Springer Mountain, Georgia- 2,180 miles,” emerged into view. Champagne bottles began to pop, cameras clicked.
The veterans went up to the sign, one by one, as if it were a consecrated altar. Steve embraced its rough wooden side and planted a kiss on the words, “Mount Katahdin.” The veterans thrust their tattooed arms high into the heavens and let out a deafening roar of joy. “Mission accomplished! To the future!”
“You cannot stay on the summit forever, You have to come down again…. So why bother in the first place? Just this: what is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one no longer sees but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.” – Rene Daumal- Mount Analogue
Five days after the climb, what had occurred on the trail over the course of six months, began to sink in. Steve wrote to me,
“ Don’t be mistaken, I may not have walked every mile and every blaze, but what I did this summer will forever live with me as the most adventurous, most breath taking, and by far the most emotional thing I’ve ever done. I’ve been happy and I’ve laughed so hard I pied myself. I’ve been sad and I’ve cried some pretty emotional tears. I’ve been mad over war memories that I could have uprooted trees. I’ve been miserable from frozen shoes and water bottles, but was amazed that in single digit temps I still managed to sweat like I was on patrol with 120 lbs of gear in 120 degree Iraq temps. I’ve lost an organ on this trail and I still came back to see what else the white blaze had to offer. I’ve been lonely at times and been full of every emotion you can think of in the last six months .I’ve made friends on the trail that will forever remain my family for as long as God chooses to leave me here.
“My walk sure didn’t cure things in six months but it gave me an even more appreciation for life- kind of like what I felt when I realized I was still alive after being hit in Fallujah. I may never be the same person I was before Iraq but Mother Nature sure did give me a place to “take it easy” and smell the roses.
“Way back in 1992, I went to Marine Corps boot-camp and was told I stood 10 feet tall and was bullet proof and could outrun a roadrunner. I lost that feeling a few years ago, but I can now say that feeling has returned….I can climb any mountain, ford any stream, build a fire with wet wood, and eat things that could make a Billy goat puke. I feel as if I’m still on Mount Katahdin looking down saying “WOW! Look what I did!” Feels pretty amazing. And just like earning the title and honor of being a UNITED STATES MARINE….you can’t take that away from me….EVER. The trail provides. The summer of 2013 will forever be the greatest and most grueling time of my life living on the Appalachian trail.”
Three months after the climb, Ruby tells me Steve’s nightmares are back since he returned home from the trail but not quite as bad. The meds he’s back on prevent him from remembering his dreams. But Ruby says he wakes her up kicking and screaming and yelling. Steve is all sweaty and has no idea why he is sweating until she tells him.
He keeps his journal from Iraq on his night stand in plain view, but had not opened it in years until the other day. When he revisited it, he was transported right back, seeing the sights in his mind, hearing the sounds, smelling the smells but he did realize that he has made progress. “I still have to take everything day to day.”
He’s doing a lot of sofa-sitting, indulging in Fox News, getting pissed off and then posting irate comments on Facebook. He longs to move away where he can live close to nature and hike whenever he feels the need. There is a big swamp outside their house with no trails nearby. Steve feels his life lacks a clear purpose or cause and he needs that.
Steve has always been a sensitive guy and after he became wounded, after he gathered up what remained of his best friend in Iraq, he became even more sensitive. He cries when he is moved. He screams like a little kid when he gets scared or is surprised. He was a big tough Marine a few years back. He killed a lot of people. He “hunted humans.” But then he broke. Now he is on the long road back to himself. The military takes some things away from you, in order to enable you to kill your fellow man and keep yourself alive; but once you return to normal life, those are the same things that you need in order to function.
Steve has a lot of Marine friends who are still acting tough and playing the hard, mean act, drinking heavily. “Maybe when they are out of the Corp, and all they have to do is think about it,” will they begin to come back to themselves?
In five years from now, Steve envisions living a lifestyle- simple, close to the earth, growing your own food and hiking.
“He’s finally found something he is passionate about,” Ruby shares, “ Hiking- but that’s not where I see myself in 5-10 years. I love my job. I drive a fancy car, wear a suit to work attend social events. I don’t want to wear hiking boots but I will try to compromise. He is my best friend. I don’t ever question the money he spent or the time he has been away. I can’t put a dollar price on getting my husband back.
The past should be left in the past, otherwise it can destroy your future. Live life for what tomorrow has to offer, not for what yesterday has taken away.”
AUTHOR’S POSTSCRIPT: I would just like to say that this man, Carl Steve Clendenning, is a tremendous hero in my eyes because he has the wisdom and courage to open up and share what he has gone through, is not afraid to expose his feelings in hopes that not just he, that all of us can come to understand, accept and heal. We see, through his words, that he is our brother, not so different than any of us and when one of our brothers is hurting, we all are. We love you Steve, and are rooting for you!!!