Every Day Is Veterans Day: Arizona Warriors Wilderness Journey Helps Veterans Integrate, Heal

By Tom Maxedon
Published: Monday, November 23, 2020 - 5:45am
Updated: Monday, November 23, 2020 - 7:55am

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Particpants group photo at Camp Geronimo
Arizona State University
Particpants group photo at Camp Geronimo on Nov. 1, 2020.

Arizona State University’s Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement helps student veterans better integrate into civilian life.

The office is adapting an ecotherapy program developed in Colorado for an Arizona-based retreat that exposes student veterans to the wilderness in hopes of fostering discussion and healing.

Arizona Warriors Wilderness Journey is modeled after Huts for Vets, started in 2013 by Paul Anderson, a writer and wilderness guide.

Anderson said in a video recap of a recent excursion, “Veterans are ultimately philosophers because they have dealt with the big issues: life, death and the meaning of existence. I decided to bring veterans into a wilderness setting with a peer group of veterans and a context, a book of readings that give a philosophical foundation to what we’re talking about and to human life. Once you get a philosophical mindset that’s cultivated in this program and get these discussions going, then [veterans] just go off and what I’ve heard on the trails from veterans is profoundly brilliant.”

He said he got the idea after reading about the high number of suicides committed by veterans which is about 18 per day, according to the latest statistics published by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

For students fresh out of the military, a large part of that existence deals with managing their personal finances.  

“When you’re in the military, everything is provided for you," said Shawn Banzhaf, senior military advocate for the Pat Tillman Veterans Center at ASU. "From the time you wake up until you go to sleep, they tell you what you’re going to be doing. And then they provide all your medical insurance all free of charge, all your meals. Your housing is provided for.”

Pat Tillman Veterans Center military advocate Shawn Banzhaf
Arizona State University
Pat Tillman Veterans Center military advocate Shawn Banzhaf (right) leads a discussion with fellow veterans at the side of Webber creek to discuss service and returning to civilian life on Oct. 31, 2020.

One of his central roles is to help veterans transform from military to student life.

“So, if you’re 18 and you go in the service, let’s say you did one contract of four years, maybe you never even had a job and had to spend your own money on those things and you don’t even understand maybe what that looks like,” he said.

Banzhaf also said he never wants students to forget the importance of their life as a veteran, but he also doesn’t want them to forever be defined by their service record.

“A really important part about what I do is helping them see that they’re more than just their DD 214. Just because the Army told you that you were good at these three things on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test doesn’t mean you can’t be anything that you dream to be.”  

A Bronze Star recipient and 21-year Army National Guard veteran, Banzhaf was in combat in Iraq in 2006-07. He said post-traumatic stress disorder is also a top concern for students.

While Arizona Warriors Wilderness Journey borrows largely from the premise of Huts for Vets, it takes student veterans into the wilderness near the Mogollon Rim for hikes followed by discussion.  

Michelle Loposky, assistant director of outreach and engagement at the Tillman Center, who along with Banzhaf went on a recent retreat. She said, “It seems that once an individual is in nature away from the chaos of society they seem to find this rooted self. Yet, in this program there is still this element of comradery and it helps our students find a way to transition from that military identity to what it looks like to being a college student and beyond.” 

Loposky served as an Army combat field medic for four years as part of stabilization forces during the Bosnian War and has witnessed first-hand how the wilderness retreat transforms formerly quiet souls. “I see that transformation in each one of our student veterans like who they were. Sometimes they’re closed in. They’re not really sure what to make of it, until the fourth day where we can’t make them stop talking, but we want them to continually talk,” she said.  

Melvin Cruz
Arizona State University
Melvin Cruz is a senior at ASU and shared his experiences on Nov. 1, 2020, at Camp Geronimo.

For Melvin Cruz, a senior at ASU studying public service and public policy with a concentration in business and a minor in communication. He’s on track to be graduated in December. Cruz is an intern at the Office for Veterans and Military Academic Engagement and an Army veteran who saw combat in Iraq.

He’s a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic and worked hard to adapt to the American way of life.

Cruz said military life gave him a similar sense of discipline, comradery and the need for teamwork he learned while growing up.

“My father was a big preacher of: ‘You live here, you’re going to contribute.’ He really preached that everyone together can make life easier for each other.”  

In a recent video from the retreat, Cruz said he still struggles to find peace even 15 years after his service.

“We all have internal struggles. It’s hard to quiet the noise. It’s hard to find that silence we all need. And sometimes as veterans, it’s hard to find that. And, that’s kind of it. You know? Just trying to find that peace, that silence, that balance.”  

For Cruz, he’s thankful the retreat helped him connect with others who deal with the fact that every day is Veterans Day.

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