On Disabled Vets, Washington Peaks, and Dog Tags

Washington Student Work Outdoor Hiking
by Joseph Epperson May 11, 2016

MILITARY MEN AND WOMEN can more easily understand the struggles we each go through — and because our bonds are deeper than blood, we can give each other a little shit. I needed to make a huge change in my life and decided to ask Jack, a military buddy for help. He is a disabled veteran as well, and someone with whom I have slowly been building a friendship. Before I had the chance to ask him, he sent me a Facebook message asking if I wanted to do a fitness hike up Rattlesnake Dance Ridge Trail.

I grasped this opportunity as though it was a flotation device and I was drowning. I have been drowning for a while, in constant incurable pain and sinking in self-doubt, self-pity, depression and bitterness. I hoped hiking with Jack would give me back the balls I needed to make a life-altering change. I wanted to break through barriers, to find success in my own life, and get out of the morass I had dug myself into emotionally, spiritually and physically.

Jack and I met at 0915 the morning after I read his FB message, piled into his car, headed out of town on the Canyon Road between Ellensburg and Yakima, then turned off near the start of Rattlesnake Dance Ridge Trail and parked in the make-do parking lot. The ridge crest summit loomed over us. I looked up.

Doubts began to cloud my mind. We would climb 1,250 feet of elevation, with only one mile of trail — our goal wasn’t to take our time and smell the flowers. Jack had hiked this trail several times, training to work as a Washington State Hotshot Crew member, generally carrying a 50-lb. pack and chainsaw to the top in a short period of time.

We tugged on our packs. “My buddy, Lance Corporal Jordan Haerter,” Jack said, “was a hero. Eight years ago today, he was standing guard at the entry point of the Joint Security station in Ramadi, Iraq. Another Marine Corporal Jonathan Yale was with him, along with two Iraqi police officers. When the suicide bomber’s truck came in, the two police officers started running. The two Marines stood their ground and opened fire. Jordan and Jonathan died in the blast, valiantly giving their lives to save 33 Marines and numerous police officers.”

“That sucks man.” It was all I could think of to say.

Jack held up a dog tag. “We’re gonna take Jordan’s dog tag to the summit and nail it to the post up there. I have been meaning to do this for a few years. Seems like a good time to do it, on the anniversary of the event.”

We began our ascent. The steep trail was rough, a dirt path with minor rock climbing. Jack led the charge as I struggled to keep moving. My face got hot and I quickly realized it wasn’t from the sun. It was me. I was really out of shape, and it was becoming difficult to breathe. I started gasping for breath. My hands and legs became shaky and I felt dizzy. I looked up at Jack carrying his heavy pack in front of me and mentally kicked myself for being so damn weak. I wanted to turn around and give up. I kept going.

A quarter of the way up I felt as though I were going to pass out. I reached my hand out to balance myself. “Hey bro…hold up. I’m sorry…I don’t know…fuck.” I sat down to calm myself and give the dizziness a chance to wear off. Jack looked back and stopped. I was expecting him to say something harsh but instead he gave me his water bottle.

“I’m embarrassed,” I said quietly.

“Why? It’s just us up here man, no reason to be embarrassed. You can do it.”

I shook my head. “Gotta keep moving dude,” Jack said. “Take deep breathes, in through the nose, like this. Take baby steps if you need too but don’t stop. When you stop you aren’t getting closer to your goals, and you aren’t getting closer to the top.”

He sounded like Yoda. I wanted to shout, “Shut the fuck up dude, I just can’t do it.” Instead, I looked up and saw that look in his eye — the gaze of a military brother, willing me to get off my ass and break through the walls in my mind. I reluctantly stood up and to my surprise, did not pass out.

If I have only learned one thing from the military, it is this; the body can endure way more than the mind thinks it can. A Navy Seal trainee, when asked about Hell Week and how he was going to get through it, simply answered: “It’s just one week, I can endure anything for a week if it means I get to be the man I want to be for the rest of my life.”

I stood on the trail and realized that as the pain of my disability had continued to wear on me physically and emotionally, I had given in to being mentally weak, and allowed that weakness to leak into many areas of my life. I started giving up on many things — social interactions, physical activities, spirituality. I continued to blame my disability for these failures and allowed my disability to define me, which goes against everything my training has taught me. I needed to stand the hell back up if I was ever going to be the man I thought I should be — and this moment on this mountain with this friend was the time to take action.

“You good?” Jack asked.

I started forward. He watched me. “Yeah boy.” I am sure he grinned but I didn’t look up to see. We moved slowly up the trail. For some reason — probably because deep down he’s an asshole — he kept telling me, “Over this next rise it’s gonna get flat, flat as a board.” But when we would crest a rise I would see the trail continuing at another steep pitch.

He continued to offer support and wasn’t annoying about it. I didn’t feel like he was making fun of me or patronizing my attempt. I began feeling sick but I kept moving forward. I felt dizzy again, so I forced myself to concentrate on breathing. I watched the dust puff up from each step. Every few moments Jack would say, “You got this.” or “You’re breakin’ through walls, dude.” My favorite was: “Hey buddy, right here fighting in the trenches.” It helped me to defiantly keep moving. I never again allowed myself to come to a complete stop.

The sun was starting to get warmer and it felt good on my face. I could feel the ever-constant breezes that define central Washington. I smelled the warm sage and wildflowers. I was still physically miserable, but I felt peace.

“We are so close dude.” Jack said. “You can see the post from here.” I looked up and saw the post jammed into a pile of rocks above me. All of a sudden, I could breathe again. The burning in my legs, back, and neck disappeared. The sweat running into my eyes no longer bothered me.

Jack stood aside and let me take the lead. Success was just a few steps away, maybe a 100 yards, and he was giving me my victory. I kept slogging and I was there — at the summit. I could see the Yakima River, the whole Kittitas Valley and the Cascade mountain range in the distance. I felt pride, joy, but mostly relief that I didn’t have to go over another rise — and I was hungry.

“You made it,” Jack said. “Go touch the post, dude.”

I stepped up on the rubble and posed. “Whoa,” I said. “I might fall off the cliff.” Jack laughed and took a picture of my victory stance. “I’m so hungry man.” I said. Jack looked through the box at the foot of the post and discovered a power bar. We shared it. It tasted better than a steak dinner.

We still had a ceremony to perform. Jack pulled my hammer from his bag and Jordan’s tag from his pocket. He pounded the nail into the post and hung the tag, then said a few quiet words to his friend. I waited in silence until the ceremony was over.

I snapped a few photos of Jordan’s tag with my phone. I was deeply proud to share that moment with Jack on the summit. I have always held a special place in my heart for those in the military, especially those taken too soon. He and I quickly made our way down to the car. I knew that the foundation for my success had been laid. Thank you, Jack and Jordan, I thought. Semper Fi.

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