Darby's Second Combat Veteran Retreat
I left Hawaii last year with the promise of leaving my suicidal ideations buried beneath the rocks of the waterfall; to forever be entombed, never seeing the light of day again. I made the promise to go home and be a better father to my children, a better husband to my dear wife. More importantly, I wanted to improve myself and find meaning in life again. That is what was missing from my life in my attempt to find my path to recovery. I needed an opportunity to share my wisdom with other veterans who are trapped in their dark holes with no apparent means of escape. The opportunity I was searching for was presented to me when I was invited to attend the veterans retreat once again, this time as alumni. With an eager anticipation, I counted down the days until I would be reunited with the location and with friends I had made in the years past.
Upon my arrival to Hawaii, I felt a calm come over me. Absent were the negative thoughts that polluted my mind back home. I felt as if my life had picked up right where I had left it a year prior, only this time I had marked growth and improvement in my life. It was at this point I knew I was ready to help the others around me. The reunion with Dave Black was special to me, as he holds a very special place in my heart being the person who saved my life. We chatted about our lives over the last year, and prepared the venue for our newest veteran attendees that were due to arrive the next day. That night I went to sleep with the feeling that this week is going to change my life for the better once again.
The next morning I woke up with anticipation of greeting our veterans who were traveling from all different parts of the country. The first to arrive was a man who last year I said "he wouldn't talk to you unless you brought a smile to the table." That's right, Jim Dudla was invited back this year. I couldn't have been more ecstatic. Shortly afterwards, we arrived at the airport to pick up our other veterans, Lee "Kawboi" Chandler and Christian Green. On the 2-hour drive back to the barn, we had good ice-breaker conversations and we had the opportunity to learn more about Christian and Lee.
We started out that next morning with a yoga session led by Lauren. For many of us, this was an enlightening session that taught us not only the limitations of our bodies, but also the benefits of having a technique to reduce some of our body pain that many of us were experiencing. After that we started our first activity as a group. We were going to explore a lava tube! Led by Ethan and Christophe, we threw on our gear and descended underground to longest lava tube on the island of Hawaii, Kazumura Caves.
Each one of us were enthralled by the sheer power it took for the rivers of lava to force its way beneath the surface above, leaving behind a cave system to be admired for those brave enough to enter them. I would highly recommend that you try "sensory deprivation" for a few minutes by turning off all your light sources and remain silent. It gives you an eery sense of what complete emptiness feels like. Ascending out of the caves, and being bathed in sunlight once again was very welcoming. Almost as if it is a sense of relief, you know, much like that of ascending from the darkness of dealing with our combat trauma.
The next day, our crew set out to conquer rappelling Kulaniapia Falls. As I had shared my experiences in my first blog post, I was praying that Jim, Lee and Christian would have a chance to reflect on what brought them to this point in life. As each of them threw their legs over the ledge, having only the trust of the rope and the trust of the guide to keep them safe, I know they felt a sense of adventure and a rush of adrenaline surge through them.
Jim was the first individual to brave the 120' drop down the face of Kulaniapia Falls. Let me tell you, for being a Vietnam veteran, this man still has the heart of a lion and conquered the falls like it was an everyday task. Following Jim was Christian. Christian made the task of descending the falls look like childs play. Last, but not least, was Lee. Lee rappelled those falls like he was a seasoned veteran, enjoying his time on the falls so much, that he even decided to take a little shower as he shifted his path towards the falls. The three of them rendezvoused back to my location where I was filming them, and each of them looked refreshed, almost as if a weight had been lifted off of them. It gave me complete validation that this program works for those in need.
The next day I awoke to my favorite part of this program, a symbolic gesture that not only provides great therapeutic value, but also helps the Kulaniapia community. It was time to plant trees in remembrance of our fallen friends. Each of us was given a tree and a location to plant it in. We prepared the ground for planting, utilizing natural fertilizers found on the farm, and put our green thumbs to the test.
Once we were satisfied with our work and attached our tin plates with the names of our fallen on them, we shared stories of how these people had impacted our lives and what we would remember most about them. This moment always brings our connections to a deeper level, as we are all empathic to each others feelings and emotions of sharing.
The following day we had to prepare for our members, and newfound brothers, to depart the island. Prior to their departure though, I wanted to share the empowerment I felt by leaving what I feared most on the island, never to return home with you. Last year, I had left my suicidal ideations behind to never see the light of day again. This year, we went down to Darby's memorial and buried them at that location.
We did not share what are fears were, but I could tell that there was a lot of heavy weight lifted off of our shoulders; burdens that we do not have to carry with us any longer. I shared with my brothers that even though I was there as alumni and that I have been able to share my successes, that I still received as much, if not more than them, on a therapeutic level. I have made it my life mission to continue to help veterans in need so that they never have to experience a darkness in which I was trapped in for so long.
That afternoon, Jim, Dave and Christian headed out and that left me and Lee to complete our final event prior to his departure. We were going to the TOP OF THE WORLD! Actually, it is more like 13,803' above sea level. That's right, we were headed to the top of Mauna Kea. Once again, Lauren was guiding us on this tour.
The night started out with a trip to the visitor center where we had to acclimate to the altitude for 30 minutes, as not to succumb to altitude sickness. Now before I get into the majestic beauty of the sky at the top of Mauna Kea, let me prepare you with this. IT IS COLD UP THERE!!! After spending the day in 80º weather in shorts and a t-shirt, I was not prepared for the brisk cold 30º weather. Fortunately we had an amazing guide that prepped with arctic cold weather suits. As we ascended up to the top of the volcano, you have international observatories littered about waiting for the sun to set so they can explore space from the most pure sky on earth. As the sun set further, the night sky started to come alive like millions of fireflies in the sky.
I took in the moments that night, reflected on how massive the universe is compared to the problems I was dealing with, and it helped put it into perspective. I knew that I was going to continue on my path to recovery in a positive manner, not only working on myself, but to help others along the path.
Once again, I would like to thank Dave. Without you, none of this would possible. You mean the world to me, and I will forever be indebted to you for your good will. Christian, Lee and Jim, you guys are my brothers. I wish you nothing but the best in life, and I hope you all continue to find your happiness. Christophe and the rest of the Kulaniapia staff and community, thank you once again for not only providing a venue for this amazing program, but for your unwavering care and compassion you have shown to us time and time again. It's a rare feeling to come into a program feeling completely alone, and leaving just days later with a sense of a huge family. Until next time!