Cherene Vanian spread out snacks and drinks on a picnic table at the bottom of the Bridger Gondola. The Teton Adaptive Sports program director uncovered a platter of cake slices and set whipped cream next to it.
“They’ll be back any minute,” she said.
As if on cue, a group of climbers and guides walked down from a day on the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort via ferrata, hot, dusty and smiling. They shared the experience of having climbed up and down the resort, but they had another thing in common: The participants were all veterans.
It was Sept. 11, and the veterans had just participated in a collaboration between Teton Adaptive Sports and the resort, the first time the partners had offered such a program. The hope was to give Jackson Hole veterans an opportunity to connect with each other in ways other than over a pint glass.
“I’ve never been the type of person that wants to sit around in a bar talking about war stories,” said Chris Reynoso, a U.S. Navy veteran. “I always shied away from people because I didn’t want to do that, so now I’m trying to get out of my comfort zone and do these kinds of things.”
For the uninitiated, a via ferrata is a man-made climbing route built into a mountainside. The term is Italian — meaning “iron path” — and the routes often feature steel cables, metal rungs like steps in a ladder and bridges over chasms and valleys.
The attraction is relatively new in Jackson, having opened last summer, and none of the veterans had climbed it. Some were experienced climbers taking advantage of the chance to try out the via ferrata, but others were facing fears.
“I’m afraid of climbing, so this was a big thing for me,” said Nichole Cox, who spent six years in the Army Reserves. “But I really enjoyed it.”
When they reached the cantina at the base of the gondola and began dolloping whipped cream onto white cake and opening cans of La Croix, it was difficult to tell that they had been strangers when they met earlier that day. Camaraderie is integral to military service, but the type of connection they gained over just a few hours on the mountain can be tough to come by when veterans come home.
“You go from living, working, sleeping, eating with these guys for a year or two,” said Cam Fields, co-founder of the Frontcountry Foundation, which helps veterans have outdoor experiences but was unaffiliated with the via ferrata event. “When you get out you don’t have that.”
In Jackson, that camaraderie can be elusive for veterans. Veteran services are scarce, in part because the population is so low.
A U.S. Census Bureau study that compiled population data on veterans between 2011 and 2015 found that in those years, when the general population was about 315 million, about 25 million veterans, or about 8 percent, lived in the U.S. Out of that relatively low proportion the study found that veterans gravitate toward cities.
Only about 5 million veterans lived in areas designated as rural, and, of those, 14.1 percent lived in the West, spreading a small veteran population across an expansive region. The diffusion of veterans across the West makes it difficult to find support from the Department of Veterans Affairs, so veterans in places like Jackson can be left to integrate into the general population without much help.
“My generation feels similar to Vietnam vets, forgotten, because the war has gone on for so long,” Fields said. “We just come home; there are no parades.”
Organizations like the Frontcountry Foundation and Teton Adaptive Sports are working to fill that gap. Without such nonprofits, veterans are left to organize themselves, which is easier said than done as they reintegrate into normal life.
“Joe Rice from Sidewinders has a Marine Corps birthday party. It’s a big deal among the Marines, so he gets really into it,” said Steve Temple, a former Marine. “But it would be nice to have more.”
Temple’s military experience, though it ended in 1983, prepared him well for the via ferrata. He was a mountain warfare specialist in the Marines, training in places like Alaska and the Mountain Warfare Training Center, a facility in the eastern Sierra Range that prepares military personnel for mountainous, high-altitude and cold-weather environments.
“I grew up climbing and skiing, so for me, it was kind of like being at home,” Temple said.
Shared service, shared stories
Though all the veterans on the via ferrata were there to find something beyond their shared service, talk of their time in the military was inevitable. Combined, the participants had served in every decade from the 1970s to the present, and that breadth spanned U.S. involvement in places from post-Korean War South Korea to Afghanistan.
“Obviously you want to know who each other are and what you do and where you were, so you relate in that aspect,” Reynoso said.
Their diversity of service led to one interesting connection: Temple and Todd Hanna, who served in the Marines from 2002 to 2008 and now runs Kate’s Real Food, discovered they had the same commanding officer, albeit decades apart. Temple served as a young man, and Hanna enlisted post 9/11, but they were close to the same age, offering a chance for them to become more than acquaintances.
“It’s nice to make that connection. He has kids about the age of my kids, so I’ll probably see him around,” Temple said.
Turning shared service into a deeper relationship is a trait of the post-9/11 veteran community. As Fields noted, those who have served in America’s longest-running war lack one thing: a clear ending to the conflict.
Without diminishing the service of older veterans or the impact of that service on them, the endings of conflicts like World War II or the Vietnam War allowed those generations, no matter the outcome of the wars, to reintegrate en masse, giving them a support system of fellow veterans. Those who have fought in America’s sprawling war on terrorism, which stretches from Iraq and Afghanistan to Africa and Asia, must cope with a return that can leave them feeling at a disadvantage.
“You feel super far behind the power curve,” Fields said. “Most people my age have a master’s, a house, a family. A lot of my generation is just now getting degrees and certificates.”
Events like the via ferrata climb are a crucial part of the adaptation of veteran support systems to serve a generation that comes home from war in a trickle, not a wave.
They recognize service without making it the focal point of the occasion, using it as a foundation, rather than an end goal.
“We’ve all been a part of these teams, and developed close bonds when we were in military,” Hanna said. “When we were up there on the via ferrata, it was like we fell right back into it.”