Darby’s First Combat Veteran Retreat
This guest post is from TSgt Brian Pope, United States Air Force. Brian was a participant in our first combat veteran retreat, in honor of Darby Charles Black.
- The development of events beyond a person’s control, regarded as determined by a supernatural power:
Imagine going from the war-torn battle fields of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the sounds of gunfire and explosives echoed throughout the night, to experiencing the harmonic sounds of the water from the Waiau Stream falling over the majestic Kulaniapia Falls as you peer down and prepare for a 120’ rappel down the face of the falls.
As I sat atop the Kulaniapia Falls awaiting my turn to rappel down, I sat there in silent reflection of what brought me to this point in life. For the past 20+ months I had been attending various formal military treatments for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. These treatments ranged from intensive out-patient therapy, to 30 days of in-patient therapy and months of one-on-one sessions. For almost 2 years I was having every medication known for my ailments thrown at me in hopes of having one of them stick. The continuous cycle of failed treatments and a bleak outlook in life led me to isolation and ruminating suicidal thoughts. Even though I was no longer physically fighting on the battle fields, I continued to fight a war inside of my head. My will to live surmounted my thoughts of death though, and my research of veterans ending their lives while dealing with PTSD guided me to reaching out to Dave Black.
Fate is what led me to find Dave, and he came into my life at a moment when I needed it most. The Darby Charles Black Memorial and Kulaniapia Adventures was the light that was able to break through the darkest corners of my life. It started with introducing me to other veterans that are struggling with PTSD. Clinton Voss, Andrew Wattier and Jim Dudla are my brothers now. Connecting with veterans that understand the struggles, and can share their experiences and coping techniques, lets you know that there is hope for your future.
Our first task at hand was building a foundation for a memorial statue for Darby. The process tested our abilities to adapt and overcome, a skill in which we became extremely proficient at during our time in the military. The resiliency shown by all was incredible as we poured the final shovel full of concrete into the form and admired our handy work. The admiration didn’t end there though. It wasn’t until that moment that I looked beyond the task at hand and admired the serenity about this location. It brings some peace to my heart knowing that Darby will forever have a spot, atop a boulder, overlooking a tranquil waterfall that’s surrounded by a lush green forest.
Dave’s impact didn’t end at the statue memorial though, as he gave us an opportunity to also commemorate our fallen friends. Dave gave us each a tree to plant as a memorial. I chose an avocado tree and felt a connection with my fallen friend throughout the process of digging the hole, fertilizing the soil and planting the tree. My friend, my brother’s name is, SSgt Brian Carragher, USAF, who incidentally was not killed during a deployment, but just shortly after his return from his second deployment to Iraq. Brian was gunned downed and murdered in front of his house in 2010.
In addition to the memorials that we accomplished, we also got to experience the beauty of the “big island” and some of the adventures that it provides. With a riveting and innocent imagination, we set off to see the Kamokuna Lava Ocean Entry. The 5 of us in “Darby’s Crew” and being documented by the amazing photographer Andrew Hara, we set off on an 8-mile round trip bike ride to the lava fields. Never in my dreams would I have thought I would be able to experience the natural beauty of something so destructive. The lava was very symbolic for me in relation to my experiences with PTSD. Lava, being hot, unpredictable and dangerous, was very much like my actions when I would experience my symptoms. As it hit the water though, it cooled off and left a solid foundation for which to grow upon. If I am able to slow my life down and let me temper “cool off” I too, would build a stronger foundation to grow as a husband and father.
There were many more adventures that we experienced during our retreat, but the real beauty came from the connections I made during the week. I haven’t been able to laugh and smile like that in years. Dave Black, words cannot explain how much you have changed my view in life. You took a chance on me and for me it paid off. I can truly say that you have saved my life. You will always have that hole in your heart that was left with Darby, but know that you have many people adding back to it because of your support and I hope it helps. Clinton Voss, you have shown me what life can be like if I continue down this path to recovery. You are a role model to me with how confident you are in what you preach. Thank you for all those times of just listening to me. Andrew Wattier, you bring so much emotion and authenticity to the way you connect with others. Thank you for sharing with me over the week and I hope you find your happiness. Jim Dudla, the man that won’t talk to you unless you bring a smile to the table. You were incredible! You have shown me what true selflessness is. You are such a caring and compassionate individual and I can use that to connect to people moving forward. Andrew Hara, you are an amazing photographer, but more importantly an amazing human with a genuine heart and someone I will gladly call my friend. Jesse Smalling, you taught me something as simplistic as slacklining could actually be extremely therapeutic. Thank you for showing me that I can control my anxiety without the use of constant medication. Last but not least I would like to thank the entire staff and larger Kulaniapia community for not only giving us the location for this retreat, but for also your amazing generosity and compassion you provided to us during our time there.
I leave you all with this. When I arrived to Hawaii, I was a broken man, someone I didn’t want to be. A man I knew I couldn’t be if I wanted to survive. I wasn’t the father I should have been for Aiden and Liam (ages 11&5) I wasn’t the husband that my wife Sara married 13 years ago. As I move forward with my life now I can confidently say that my time to shine is ahead of me. I will take the beauty of Kulaniapia Falls and share them with my family and my friends. I will share of the great times I had with my new found brothers and sisters. What I leave on that island forever, buried beneath the rocks of the falls never to see the light of day again is my suicidal ideations. I move forward with less weight on my shoulders and more light in my heart.
Thank you to everyone and I look forward to the day that I can see everyone again.
- TSgt Brian Pope, United States Air Force