By Nikolas Monastere
Once upon a time, I was a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division. In 2014, I spent nine months in Kandahar, Afghanistan, as part of the quick reactionary force for all ISAF forces operating in the south. It was my first and only deployment, having missed the opportunity to deploy two years prior when I was sidelined due to a shoulder injury that required major reconstructive surgery. My deployment was largely uneventful; there were a few close calls, but it was nothing compared to what my previous unit faced in 2012.
Several friends lost limbs that year, and my best friend was killed. When I got the chance to deploy, I was sure I would die. But by that point, Survivor’s Guilt had me convinced it would be for the best. There were times I wished it’d happen.
The deployment came and went, and I returned home without even firing my rifle. I felt like a complete failure as an infantryman. In 2015 my contract expired, I received an Honorable Discharge, and I went back to Ohio and got a job in a factory. The pay and benefits were incredible, but the job was monotonous, dull, unfulfilling. I told myself to “embrace the suck,” a common phrase passed around in the military. The Army knows the work required of its soldiers is tough, sometimes miserable work.
The soldiers need to accept the suffering and move on if they’re ever going to be effective. This concept works great in adverse situations like combat and training, but a permanent adoption of the attitude can destroy a person’s mental health. When you believe suffering and torment are all there is to life, you internalize it and start to lose hope. I suspect this is the reason so many veterans commit suicide.
I came close to doing the unthinkable myself, and eventually, I had a mental breakdown. I left the factory mid-shift, determined to do anything else with my life as long as it made me happy. I sold all my DVDs, books, and musical instruments. I donated the vast majority of my clothes. I suppose it was a suicide of sorts, but rather than end my life I killed the person I’d become. I’d forgotten what it meant to be happy. I needed to get rid of everything and start with nothing.
Then I made the best decision of my life. I found a job offer on CoolWorks, for a resort in Alaska. CoolWorks is a website that connects adventurers and seasonal workers with employers across the country. The jobs are usually in resorts or national parks, and it’s the go-to site for people interested in exciting outdoor career opportunities. The job I applied for was the Mount McKinley Wilderness Princess Lodge, located forty miles from the tallest peak in North America- Mount Denali.
Since Alaska, I’ve worked in and around several other national parks, from Colorado to Arizona and South Dakota. I’ve spent nearly a year living abroad. I’ve found kinship with the people I’ve worked with. A diverse, decentralized community of people like nobody I’ve met anywhere else. I’ve found purpose in travel, a sense of belonging amongst those who belong nowhere but the highways, the airways, and the present moment.
Some travel with the season, some only once every few years, and others have found a place to call home. Still, we all know the urge to move. We know what it’s like to feel the migratory instinct tugging us somewhere else. And we all know our coworkers are kindred spirits and inevitable friends.
A large part of the bonding comes from the locations themselves. Natives and tourists alike know these places to be holy or sacred. Denali means “the Great One,” a title that refers to something far more than height. Special. The Hopi and Zuni tribes believe the Grand Canyon is the birthplace of their people. The Lakota call the Black Hills Paha Sapa, “the heart of everything that is.”
The national parks hold a transcendental power that all visitors immediately recognize. It’s no surprise that- immediately following my mental breakdown- I was drawn to these places of birth and rebirth; places of growth.
In the dark years following my Army discharge, I grappled with resentment for a country that seemed unworthy of the sacrifices I’d made. From the leaders it elected to the celebrities it worshipped, it seemed a vessel for empty promises and unfulfilled potential.
But the national parks forced me to step back and reconsider my position. I met wonderful people from all over the country and the world at large. People for whom I would risk life and limb. I saw a land of infinite beauty and wonder, full of beautiful nature and sacred sites worth fighting for. I found the reason.
I shudder to think where I don’t know were it not for the National Parks and the people I’ve met while working in them, but I know I wouldn’t be where I am now. I know I wouldn’t be happy. I know I wouldn’t see the world for the beautiful place it is.
Now I know what’s worth fighting for, and that’s enough to bring me peace.
An average of 22 United States veterans commits suicide every day. military experience is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping veterans and their families express themselves through poetry, prose, and the arts. Please visit their website at http://militaryexperience.org/ and encourage service members by reading their work and consider making a donation if you can. Help end veteran suicide by supporting a platform that gives them a voice. Thank you.