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The Forest



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“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” ― John Muir

A couple of hospitalizations, outpatient programs, weekly therapy appointments, medication after medication, suicide became an attractive alternative, not because I wanted to die, rather I wanted the symptoms to end. I did not want to live, yet I did not want to die. So much fear in both places, being torn, simply existing.

I was becoming my own worst enemy, thinking about it all the time, fearful of a trigger in a public place; I became a recluse, a prisoner in my own home. My PTSD issues are not all service-connected, complex trauma they call it for female veterans. According to national statistics, one in three women has experienced a violent crime. So I am a statistic in two categories, considering becoming a third in the suicide category.

When I came to this dark place, I had a choice, to live or die. I decided to live. Sure, it may mean more pain, actually dealing with it, rather than medicating and drinking my problems away, I found no answers at the bottom of my pill and beer bottles. No one was going to do my healing for me, so while “existing” in Texas, I found a Colorado cabin on the Internet bordering the National Forest, packed my stuff, and here I am.

I found my sanctuary, got my boots, got my pack, grabbed my dogs, and set off for the woods. I got out of my head and into my body. Working with my therapist and my primary care physician, I started making tremendous strides; each mile I hiked I put my past further behind me. If I felt anxiety, depression, I took a hike, letting my natural endorphins kick in, each day growing physically, mentally, and psychologically stronger, restoring my confidence.

My place is out in BFE, I heat my cabin with a wood stove, and I got back to nature and basic survival because if I got snowed in, all I could do was rely on myself. I worked on my property, prepared for winter, and hiked in the forest, no longer just existing, but living again, healing outdoors. Getting out of my mind and into my body in nature was the best decision I ever made, I chose to make an “active” recovery!

Hard to believe I never left my house, looking at where I am at today. As Muir wrote, nature did help me heal and I am growing stronger every day in every way because of the outdoors. It is hard to think about the past when hiking or snowshoeing in the forest, because you are in the present moment, heart beating with exertion, finding your natural rhythm, pole, shoe, pole, shoe. Just taking in the beauty around me as I trek through the woods, how do I get over to that rock face, hey look, deer, turkey, elk, rabbits, now this is living!!!

Crowds, traffic, noises, none of that bothers me now, no more anxiety attacks, no more flashbacks, nothing in my way now! I had the help of many along the way; I enrolled in the VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation program. My VA employment Coordinator, Jason Shireman, came up with a brilliant plan for me. Working with Troy Fuhrman, Facilities Manager at the Florissant
Fossil Beds National Moment/National Park Service, we set up a Non-Paid Work Experience Internship as part of the VA’s Coming Home to Work Program. This was an excellent transition for me to get back into the workforce, receiving training and applying my existing skills sets with the outdoors as my office!

I met Jeff Wolin, Lead Interpreter at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument and learned about their Post to Parks program, a fantastic grass roots strategy to connect the military community to the outdoors. As a Park Service Volunteer/VA NPWE representative, I attended Fort Carson and VA events with several hundred people, meeting and connecting with others, that was a milestone for me. As it turns out, Troy Fuhrman served in the same unit as I did, we knew a lot of the same people, he understood the deal. Troy and Jeff were there to push me to get out there when I wanted to retreat. Turns out that whole thing about helping others helps ourselves turned out to be so true.

I met another Wounded Warrior Intern at the National Monument. To see him flourish in this environment through the Post to Parks program was truly an honor. It helped me realize how healing the outdoors was for both of us, had we been in an urban office setting; our tales may have had a different ending. Through the Fossil’s Beds Post to Parks Program, my fellow service member is now working for the Park Service in another state. As I gained confidence from the therapeutic value of the National Forest and my experiences at the Park Service, I gained full-time employment and now work for the Air Force and love my job. We made “active recoveries!”

It was a challenge to start working again, being around people, being in the city but as I drove home and got into the forest, those anxieties faded away. If I had a challenging day, I hiked, recalling how much I had already gone through, all the different people and agencies that helped me get to where I am today!! So thankful for the opportunities, the experiences, the progress, then it happened…..the fire hit.

The fire department came through with bull horns that we had 10 minutes to evacuate. We all ran upstairs to my loft, there it was, and my sanctuary aka the forest was ablaze. We were just barbequing out back that was how quickly it happened. My Army training came into play as we packed up what we could, the sky turning black, compartmentalizing. We all made sure everyone in the area got out. As we drove down the mountain pass, I realized what is important in your life, I literally left with the clothes on my back, I forgot to pack my clothes.
Watching the slurry planes and the acreage numbers burned increase that night on the news, I was in shock. My sanctuary, where I had accomplished so much healing and learned to live again, was going up in flames and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. The local sheriff’s department let me come back to get my kitties the following day, I could not find them at the time of evacuation. Our subdivision was the front line of the fire.

I was scared as to what I may find, I had 20 minutes to find them and get out. As I entered our subdivision, I saw national forest and other fire fighters from all over the country lined up by our fire house. Folks from all over, all different agencies answered the call to help. The smoke and haze were bad, I got the kitties and some other things and left, I looked out the loft again, yep the fire was closer. I was still on auto-pilot, just completing my mission, wanting to stay and fight, realizing I would just get in the way. The professionals were on the scene, trucks and geared lined the road. I thanked them.

I cried at that moment as I drove away. How was I going to make it without my National Forest right there? What if the fire spread to the National Monument? What were we going to go? What if we lost it all? Tears are in my eyes right now as I recall that moment. What if I lost everything? Then I remembered it was not too long ago when I was ready to throw everything away, to become that statistic I mentioned before. Driving away from the forest fire, I realized how truly how far I had come, before wanting to throw my life away and now it was the most precious gift.

I returned to Colorado Springs where I was staying with friends. At that point, I realized I have been through worse and survived, why would this be any different? Insurance would cover the rebuild and right now in the present moment, there were national, state, and local agencies and volunteers doing everything to fight that forest fire. Just like before when I hit rock, there were people to help, this time was no different!

I remember when the evacuation order was lifted, I got to go home!!! As I returned home, the Waldo Canyon Fires broke out and they closed the pass through the mountains shortly after I got through. Again, the sky was on fire. Pikes Peak National Forest was ablaze, again. The fire storms were terrifying as well as the resulting devastation. I could relate to their plight. I prayed, we all prayed.

There is danger living next to the National Forest but the rewards outweigh the risk for all the forest has to offer. What we all realize is a possibility was now reality. Resources were stretched thin at this point, forest fire the previous week, my forest fire, an arsonist running around the counties, the other forest fires in Colorado, now Waldo. It wasn’t looking good for Pikes Peak National Forest this summer.

I pulled into my driveway, the house was still there. I went out back, the Forest Fire Fighters had created a defensive line behind my house, dropped slurry, a Flight for Life helicopter flew overhead, and I was overwhelmed. I was overwhelmed knowing the same folks that were out back in my forest were doing the same thing now in Waldo. There was no vacation, there were no breaks, there was a call to action, and these fire fighters, first responders, and volunteers answered it. I knelt down, I cried, and I was so thankful, my home and the forest were still there. I was one of the lucky ones, others were not.

Once the Springer Fire was out, I hiked into the National Forest. I hiked into the Canyon. I saw the hot spots. I saw where the forest fire fighters had tagged escape routes. I saw where the fire burned. I could not believe the terrain they navigated with the gear they must have been wearing and carrying. I could only imagine hiking through this area what it would have been like, the thick forest, if the winds had just shifted a little…

I met some fishermen that day, turns out one was an Army veteran. They were so thankful. They had enjoyed the public lands like me over the years and for all of it to burn would have been a tragedy. We had all decided that day to show our thanks by getting back out there and enjoying our public lands! We are certainly more vigilant out there, if we see something like unauthorized burns, we immediately report it. We still continue to protect our lands out here.
Here’s the thing, despite the challenges and issues that arose, federal, state, and local agencies, organizations, and volunteers worked together to fight to save the National Forest as well as our homes! They did not have to draw a defensive line behind our homes or drop the slurry, but they did. The National Forest helped me save my life, to heal and get better. The amazing people serving with the National Park Service helped me create a new life. Then all those folks I mentioned defended and protected that new life.

As a veteran I served my country and my public lands have served me as well. I am just one of many whose lives have changed because of connecting with the outdoors, with our public lands, with their agencies. They fought hard this summer to protect these public lands that they serve every day. We have a choice, chose to get outside, put on those boots, grab your gear, and enjoy those public lands that our military, veterans, and these agencies have fought and continue to fight to protect. It is the least we can do.

Thank you to all those who have served, past, present, and future in our military and our public lands’ agencies and volunteers who answer the call. I am eternally grateful, you have helped me save my life, create a new life, and protected that new life, thank you.

Submitted by: Elizabeth K