Healing Waters

War veterans—who’ve seen more pain and devastation than most will see in a lifetime—struggle to find peace, and ways to fit back in and contribute all they have to offer. Three days on a roiling river bring them a step closer to feeling good in their own skin again.

Photographs by McNair Evans

“Forward! Forward!! FORWARD!!!” shout the river guides.

Eighteen US military veterans plunge their paddles into foaming waves.

“Get DOWN!” comes the next command.

The vets tilt forward.

Several of them scream.

Four gray rubber rafts pitch over the eight-foot drop at Clavey Falls.

Matt Huffman (left) and Zeb Virgil (right) gear up for four days whitewater rafting on the Tuolumne River with their fellow veterans.
 Matt Huffman (left) and Zeb Virgil (right) gear up for four days whitewater rafting on the Tuolumne River with their fellow veterans.

The veterans and their support staff of six guides and two mindfulness instructors are traveling 18 miles on a three-day journey through a wild, deep river canyon west of Yosemite National Park.

They’re here thanks to a San Francisco-based program, Honoring the Path of the Warrior, which provides an unusual, highly skillful mix of free-of-charge, adrenaline-junkie fun with secular training in mindful breathing, acceptance, and compassion.

This is HPW’s sixth whitewater trip. It has also sponsored rock-climbing and hiking events, so far serving more than 400 veterans. Several recent clinical studies suggest that training in mindfulness—nonjudgmental, accepting awareness—can help alleviate some of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which has grown to epidemic proportions among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Each week, roughly 1,000 veterans receive new diagnoses of PTSD, according to recent estimates from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Classic symptoms include depression, anxiety, irritability, and panic. The disorder is also a frequently cited factor in the alarming and increasing rate of suicides among US troops and veterans. Some 8,030 veterans committed suicide in 2010, the VA has reported— averaging out to 22 each day, and more in just one year than the total estimated number of US military deaths since the beginning of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Given their military background, most of the rafters are accustomed to ruggedness, risk, and danger. They also love to work in teams.
 Given their military background, most of the rafters are accustomed to ruggedness, risk, and danger. They also love to work in teams.

Even so, however useful mindfulness may be as a tool for relief of psychic suffering, it’s the rare former military member who is eager to sit still. “Most vets like adventure,” says Lee Klinger Lesser, HPW’s tan, silver-haired cofounder and executive director, one of the two women leading the trip. “And the power of the river is immediate. You have to show up.”

It’s early July, and the banks of the Tuolumne are patched with charred remnants of buckeye, oak, and pine trees burned in last year’s devastating fire. The water is shallower than in past years, in the wake of a record-setting drought, although periodic releases from upstream reservoirs keep it flowing.

Wearing bright orange plastic helmets and life vests, the vets stand out against the brown and gray of burnt grass and granite boulders. They listen for orders, poised to react, as if they were once again in training or combat.

“BACK, now, BACK!” shout the guides, and the rafters furiously back-paddle to clear a jagged rock known as the Rooster Tail. Whitewater rafting is considered an “extreme sport.” The professional guides make it safer, but the dangers are real—particularly if participants aren’t paying close attention. Rafters can get thrown into the waves and sucked into the eddies that swirl around rocks, which the guides call being “worked in the hole.”

Many of the vets haven’t met each other before this week. Nor at first do they seem to have much in common. Five women and 13 men, they range in age from late 20s to early 50s. One is a university professor; another owns a small mechanics company.

Some are back in school. Two are still employed in the armed forces. Several are out of work.

They’ve served in the army, air force, navy, coast guard, and National Guard—in Iraq and Afghanistan, most recently, but also in Bosnia, Haiti, post-Katrina New Orleans, and as part of multinational forces in Israel. What brings them here and binds them together is soon obvious. All have been suffering—mostly alone—from a range of troubles including depression, anxiety, night terrors, and the aftermath of sexual assault. Many of these injuries date back to long before they signed up to serve, the military often seeming a safe haven from abusive families. It’s soon clear that they also miss the camaraderie and sense of purpose they had for a time and have since lost, but find again each time they reunite with other vets.