Into their packs went skinning knives and spare ammunition, bottles of water and ponchos for the rain. They stocked game bags against their hopes for success, energy bars against miles of breathtaking climb, first aid supplies against possibilities that lay between. They brought flashlights to shine on obstacles under their feet and remedies for as many more needs as seemed likely. They hefted all of this onto their shoulders, latched buckles at chest and waist to keep them still, then set off into the mountains, one measured step at a time.
Along with the weight on their backs, they carried burdens in their hearts. Part of them remains forever in moments that changed their lives and ended others, that took away friends and left regrets surely none without firsthand knowledge of war could understand.
These burdens could not be dropped into the dust at day’s end, not on those days or any other. Rather, they cling on and multiply among themselves, leaving their unseen impressions where they will.
Both Master Sergeant Raymond Soto and Sergeant Major Kevin Bittenbender carry physical wounds, some that have healed, some, less tangible, that will be with them forever, and they miss the company of fellow soldiers, possibly the only audience that can understand. Rather than becoming statistics themselves, though, they have long since transformed into leaders for their fellow wounded in battles that rage all but unseen.
Through the organization Hope For The Warriors they have found, and have guided countless others onto, custom-laid paths to follow, back to the peace they bled to defend. The organization, a nonprofit based in northern Virginia, offers a wide variety of support for the post-9/11 wounded. They offer tailored help in the transition back to civilian life, in a return to physical and mental health and wellness, and through the opportunity to fellowship with other veterans in sporting and recreational events. The latter brought Soto and Bittenbender to the mountains of northwestern Colorado and the wild backcountry of Three Forks Ranch last week.
Anyone who met them, anyone who knew anyone like them, would certainly want to help, but what can a nation of civilians really do? What difference in their lives can we make? I don’t know. They say they served and sacrificed for their own reasons, and it’s evident they suffer now, mostly on their own, due to the same. For that, a simple thanks is surely not enough, but, if it’s all we have to give, we can give that, at least.
Their message, though, is much more than that. Their message now, the one they live as well as speak, is that no veteran need feel alone, for where there is life, there is always hope. Hope, for warriors like them and, of course, by extension, hope for us all.
Sometimes physical burdens are welcome replacements for troublesome memories. High in the Park Range, west of the continental divide, physical burdens are not hard to find, but neither are the rewards for meeting them. The ground leaps toward the sky from high river valleys. Serviceberry and sage, chokecherry and cedar leap up from the ground, and four-footed game leaps up from everywhere to swim through a sky as blue as Caribbean shoals and deep with the promise of wonder.
For Soto, of Texas, and Bittenbender, of Pennsylvania, time in the outdoors, wherever it’s found, has come as a welcome relief. In the thin air of the high mountains of Colorado, on the streets of San Antonio, in the rolling hills of Williamsport, and in towns and communities like them in all 50 states, for Soto and Bittenbender and for countless more too many to name, Hope For The Warriors has made a difference in lives that might well have been lost long after the last battles were over, made a difference in lives that would certainly have been less without.
Check them out at hopeforthewarriors.org. If you’re of a mind to offer more than thanks alone, it’s certainly a real way to help, a way to make a real difference.