After Returning Home, Soldiers Find Sanctuary in Being Together on Outdoor Adventure Trips

PHOTO: War correspondent Sebastian Junger partnered with Outward Bound for Veterans to host outdoor adventure trips for soldiers after they come home from war.
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The Korengal Valley is one of the deadliest outposts in Afghanistan and there are countless ways to die out there -- being pinned down by enemy fire in the deep valleys, roadside bombs or mortar attacks, just to name a few.

But for the soldiers who make it back home, the absence of the men from their unit soon becomes a ghostly presence in their lives and surviving the war almost seems easier than readjusting to their old lives.

War correspondent Sebastian Junger was embedded with the 173rd Airborne in the Korengal Valley in 2007 while on assignment for "Nightline." His stunning footage became his Oscar-winning documentary, "Restrepo." Since then, Junger has partnered with an organization called Outward Bound for Veterans, designed to help returning warriors come to terms with civilian life.

"The thing about combat is that you have a small group of people who are completely inter-reliant on each other in the worst kind of circumstances," Junger said. "Once you get used to that, it's actually very hard to give it up and a lot of soldiers actually miss the war that they were in.

"Not that they miss war," he added, "but they miss being in a smaller group where they feel so safely protected by their brothers and sisters. And what outward bound is able to do is, in some ways, re-create that environment, except in a non-combat setting."

Gathered together at the Colorado River, this unit's mission now is to enjoy themselves in the great outdoors without having to worry about sniper fire or IEDS.

"Being isolated in this remote canyon, water all around, cliffs all around, you know, no people for, like, miles -- you know, it's just awesome; and we don't have to worry about people in the hills ready to shoot at us, you know," said Bryan Young, a veteran from the 173rd Airborne who was on the outdoor trip. "But we get to have that same like-mindedness all together again, doing exactly what we were doing, just joking and just being us, you know, just laughing at life."

The group went hiking, biking, rafting, among other activities. The idea is to take soldiers back to the wilderness together.

Junger said the trips help the soldiers make sense of what they've been through.

"It takes vets and it takes them to some of the most rugged and beautiful parts of America, of that country they were defending," Junger said.

The trips also help remind the men of teamwork and the challenges of the natural world. It gives them a place, away from society, to bond again and to be understood by people who have been through the same thing.

"When I was in Afghanistan, I watched people literally die for each other, and then I come back to a society that honks at me if I've taken too long to make a right-hand turn," said Brendan O'Byrne, another veteran from the 173rd Airborne who was on the trip.

'The First Night I Had a Decent Night's Sleep

Young added that the trips are a great way for him to re-connect with those who lived through intense situations together.

"I know all these other guys are having such a blast that we want to make this a regular deal," he said. "We are probably going to be doing this every year, hopefully."

Out here, they have a sanctuary. On a raft heading down the river, the men, once again, experience the courage, brotherhood and the real sense of power they loved and needed while in combat.

"The big problem for me before I got out here [was that] I was constantly thinking about my past, what I could have done different" Young said. "The first night we floated down on the raft during the night -- that was the first night I had, like, a decent night's sleep. And I'm, like, wet. And it was a little chilly. I mean, 14 of us on this little raft sleeping together. ... My mind was clear. I wasn't thinking about anything. I was just thinking about stars, shooting stars, everything. Just, it was awesome."

In the morning, the sun rose over the mountaintops and the men took in the breathtaking landscapes. Perhaps they will start to remember there was something worth fighting for after all.

For more about Outward Bound for Veterans, visit its website www.outwradboundveterans.org

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