ALMO — The strangest day in Kurt Volker’s adult life was his first 24 hours outside the military.
For 7,300 days, the Air Force tech sergeant had been told what to do, where to go and how to think.
Walking off his base, he no longer existed to the military and he felt he didn’t exist to the civilian masses. From a highly focused, egoless team structure, Volker entered what he saw as a Twilight Zone of unorganized narcissists listlessly wandering through a world he hadn’t seen since 1991.
June 1, 2011 — he was lost, unemployed, broke, depressed and newly disabled. A botched back surgery left him with chronic pain on top of a laundry list of other ailments.
At home were his four children, wife, dog and two cats. In his bank account was a small military retirement check.
“I lost my brain,” said the Boise resident. “I look good now, but really I’m a hot, sick mess. I wouldn’t say that I was ready to kill myself, but I wasn’t afraid of being dead.”
Aug. 9, 2014 - a climbing harness around his hips, Volker leaned back atop a cliff, legs dangling over the route he had just navigated, and smiled. His skull-decorated cane was discarded in the brush below.
“It doesn’t matter how many mountains you climb, how many rocks you rip, how many rivers you kayak, all that crap is inconsequential,” he said. “If you make a summit, make a climb, it matters that you went there. It is the journey to the point that you are trying to get to that matters.”
Nineteen veterans made a similar journey to Castle Rocks State Park Saturday to find solace in scrambling up sheer cliffs as part of the second annual Warriors’ Rock event. The event was created by Diana Lincoln-Haye and husband, Stan, and organized with the help of Idaho ‘N’ Heroes Outdoors.
Lincoln-Haye, who wrote a thesis for her master’s degree on the psychological benefits of rock climbing, said the mindfulness the sport demands helps veterans get beyond mental and physical barriers.
“Six hours of this is better than 10 months in the head shrinker’s office,” Volker affirmed. “It’s transformative.”
When one’s life is in the hands of another veteran belaying below, one can’t help but be transported back to the safety of a military trust civilians can’t understand, Volker said. There existed an un-communicated understanding among those gathered Saturday, he said.
“Different blood, but we’re all a family,” said fellow veteran climber Aimee King. “We all have each other’s backs.”
Hansen resident Terry Jensen said he loved to feel that trust again after he stumbled upon last year’s event during a star-gazing trip at nearby City of Rocks National Reserve.
Ever since, the 8-year Army veteran said he has longed to climb again.
“Going up is the easy part,” said Jensen who spent a year doing foot patrols in Iraq during the 2003 invasion. “Coming down, if you trust your life to a guy on a rope, you can open up about anything. And, you won’t hold back if they talk.”
The event comforts by providing the familiarity of small, organized tasks structured as a larger mission — something Jensen said doesn’t come easy as a father of several children. It is also an escape from constant mental reminders of faraway battlefields.
“It was weird going back to work,” he said. “Over there, when it got quiet, something was going down. I do OK now, but the first Fourth of July, I was literally under my bed. You see trash on the road and it freaks you out still because that’s where they used to hide (IEDs).”
After a few years out of the military, King said she became depressed and wanted to re-enlist, but couldn’t because of injuries to her hips, knees and shoulders.
Serving stateside in the Army Military Police for six years, King said her body was ground down from trip after trip through the woods carrying a 50-pound rucksack. Instead of therapy, King sought refuge in the gym, exercise classes and playing on a woman’s ice hockey team. She wanted to battle depression on her own terms.
“With activities like this, depression is out the window,” she said looking back at fellow veterans taking to the rocks.
Before the event, King said she chatted with Mark Yearsley, an Air Force veteran and right leg amputee.
While in the Gulf War, Yearsley stepped in a land mine hole, twisted his foot so much it faced up his back, shredding every ligament and piece of cartilage in his knee. After 20 reconstructive surgeries, Yearsley faced a decision — fuse the bone, stay in the wheelchair and be fed a diet of 500 mg of morphine a day.
Or break free.
Although he was depressed and suicidal for years after the elective amputation, Yearsley said his life changed for the better at last year’s Warriors’ Rock event. The Jerome resident has since dedicated his life to rock climbing and helping other veterans get outdoors. He plans to climb El Capitan — Yosemite National Park’s 3,000-foot granite monolith — next summer.
“Him being able to come out here? I love him for it,” King said with a smile.
Yearsley said he felt much different climbing this year — instead of a joy coming from his personal accomplishments, he said he enjoyed helping and encouraging others.
But the day wasn’t all peaches.
Up at 4 a.m., Yearsley was again embattled — his prosthetic climbing leg had blown a seal and wouldn’t hold air needed for its pneumatic action. Awake in bed and up in his head, Yearsley wondered why he had even come. He was unsure his regular leg would carry him up the rock.
“It went back to that old place where I wanted to call it quits,” he said. “But for the last year, the way I’ve done things, I just chose to adapt.”
Volker shares that sentiment. It’s a journey to “define the new you.”
“You can’t come from an athletic background, spending your whole life in G.I. Joe shape, to doing this the bulk of the time,” Volker said picking up his cane. “I’ve been searching for three years.”
Information from The Times-News, www.magicval