When I got out of the military I was lost. I hadn’t planned beyond my enlistment. I had just served with an elite unit and lived a very exciting and dangerous life. It was hectic, chaotic, and addictive. It was how I grew up and how I identified myself. It was all I knew. When I returned home I had to figure out what was next. I had to find my passion in the civilian world.
As I was figuring this out, I was severely injured in an industrial accident that left me in a hospital bed not knowing what I was physically capable of anymore. I lost my fingers on my dominant hand. I had a hole in my hip larger than my fist. My parents were taking care of me, my mom changed my bandages and packed my wounds, and my dad cut my food for me. I was in and out of the hospital - surgery after surgery. The large amount of opioid painkillers were all that made me feel good. They didn’t take the pain away, they just took me away from the pain. I was down and out. I found rock bottom. I was scared I wouldn’t be able to do the things I loved anymore. I was scared to deal with that type of pain for the rest of my life. Was I all washed up at 24 years old?
It wasn’t supposed to go like this. I was tired of feeling sorry for myself and dove into recovery with everything I had. The surgeries were improving my abilities. One very important surgery drastically decreased my pain. I was gaining confidence again and I was learning how to deal with my injuries. I quit opioids and haven’t taken them since. I went to college where I got a degree in Recreation Management and traveled the country working outdoor job after outdoor job. I was living out of my truck long before it was fashionable. I held numerous roles and worked for a variety of organizations including the Park Service, the Forest Service, non-profits, for-profits, guiding companies, and wilderness therapy companies. I didn’t know it yet, but I was gaining the experience needed to run Veterans Expeditions. In 2010, my outdoor experience and my military past came together in the creation of Veterans Expeditions. We struggled to find our footing and got it all together in 2014 in Salida CO. We finally had the leadership we needed to move the organization forward.
Vet Ex Leaders
In 2015, we sent an expedition team out on Denali. That expedition was the culmination of our organization at the time. We had expanded our leadership team over the course of a few years; this leadership team ran all of the expedition logistics and the trip was entirely self-guided. We suffered through some tough weather and conditions, but our success throughout the expedition proved to us and everyone else that we had the ability to run expeditions anywhere. And that is exactly what we did.
We continued to expand our leadership team through all of it. Our leadership is the difference; it is what makes us who we are. We have well qualified and educated military veteran volunteer leaders that run a wide variety of outdoor trips nationwide. It takes time to grow leadership from within. We have invested many years into this leadership that has blossomed into our trip leading regions of Colorado and the mountain west, the east coast, and the pacific northwest.
Josh Oakley, our board president, was on Denali in 2015 with a separate expedition. He started coming out with us many years ago. We identified his talents and offered him a board seat. Josh is the VetEx leadership example of vets who keep coming out with us until we find a position in our organization for them. Josh is an Air Force Academy alumni, a former Special Forces commander, an entrepreneur who operates several businesses, a father, a husband. Josh is the cornerstone of our board providing stability and leadership to our organization. He is the jack of all trades that every organization needs and we are so lucky to have him as our president.
Nathan Perrault also climbed Denali with our 2015 team, and Nate has since grown into our Field Director at VetEx. Nate is a USMC veteran who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He holds down the field program and supervises our many volunteer leaders who run our trips. Nate makes sure our military veteran participants have what they need for any of the 40+ trips we run annually. Nate has been working on his outdoor education for many years now. He is working on his IFMGA Mountain Guide certification. Nate is also finishing up his Masters Degree in Tourism Management. Nate is personable, positive , and committed to providing the highest quality outdoor experience possible for our trip participants. He is the life blood of our organization.
Harmony McCoy and Candice Creecy head up our women's veteran programs. Harmony was an Army officer who has become a nurse in her civilian life. She started coming out with us in 2016 as we were looking for women vets to form a Denali climbing team. Candice Creecy came to us during this time as well. Candice was a United States Marine Corps Officer who served as an F/A 18 Weapons Systems Officer. Candice is now a Physician's Assistant in her civilian life. Together, Harmony and Candice headed up our 2019 Women’s Denali team as well as leading numerous training climbs on Mt. Baker and many others. Candice and Harmony are the newest members of our board of directors. They are pushing our women’s programs into the future.
Durango to Moab
The 9/11 Durango to Moab ride(Opens in a new window) was our first major bike packing trip. We have run mountain biking trips every year since we started, but this was our first multi-day bike packing trip. On 9/11/10 we ran our first major trip and we consider this date to be our birthday. We created the VetEx 9/11 Climbing Series which runs multiple trips across the country on this date annually to commemorate the lives lost on 9/11/01 and all those lives lost in service since. This is why this trip was so special to us. It was our birthday and our opportunity to showcase what we are all about: We push ourselves and each other. We suffer together and remember those who sacrificed so much since this day in 2001. We also support one another, take care of each other as we pedal forward to achieve our goal of Moab. We are a family that extends to a greater community. We sweat together, bond together, cry together, mourn together, and pick each other up, much like we did when we served in the military. This comradery, this community of being a part of something bigger than ourselves, is what we all miss from our active duty service. It is why we all keep coming back. The ability to move forward, have success, have failure, as a community. Everyone needs this, wants this, whether they know it or not.
In 2024 we plan to run our monument trips that we run every year as well as some new trips opportunities too. On the bike packing front, we will be running the Cape Loop in Baja Mexico this December. We plan to make the Baja bike packing trip an annual event. Our upcoming schedule is full of mountaineering, rock climbing, ice climbing, backpacking, all kinds of paddling, mountain biking, fishing, and so much more.
Our trips go up on our website around Thanksgiving every year with the entire schedule posted by the end of each year. Those 40 or so trips and expeditions are posted on our website for any military member or veteran to sign up and attend. We also have some spots on every trip for non-vets to join us as well. We know the best way to see our community in action is through our trips so we welcome sponsors, donors, and supporters to join us outside. We do have limited space on these trips and most of them will fill up to cappasity. On our website you can sign up for trips and donate to help run these trips(Opens in a new window). We post other meet up and fundraising opportunities on our social media feeds.
It is true that our trips are 100% run by our volunteer leaders. It is also true that these volunteers are very qualified outdoor professionals. It takes a long time to become an outdoor leader at VetEx. It is something we do not take applications for. All of our leadership comes from vets getting outside on our trips with us. We do very much need volunteer help in fundraising, grant writing, etc. It’s not as sexy as running trips, but there are no trips without the funds to pay for them. Please email [email protected](Opens in a new window) for our fundraising volunteer opportunities. This Veterans Day, Giving Tuesday, etc., we could really use your donation to power our 2024 schedule(Opens in a new window). Thank a veteran for their service by getting them outside with us and part of our community.
Words by Nick Watson, Executive Director and Founder of Veterans Expeditions. Image via Veterans Expeditions and Nevin Fowler.