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Onward, Upward, and Outside: Wounded Warrior’s Project Odyssey

January 23, 2016
Wounded Warrior's Project Odyssey
Courtesy of Wounded Warrior ProjectWounded Warrior Project Odyssey participants take a 2016 ski lesson at Bretton Woods, in New Hampshire.

Logan Maestri wears a huge grin. Seated on a couch in AMC’s Highland Center, the 30-year-old ex-Marine is recounting the day’s exploits of skiing at nearby Bretton Woods, in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest. “I never skied before, but I kicked ass,” he says. “I had an instructor with me, and he asked, ‘You’ve never done this before?’ Nope, never.” On this cold day in early January 2016, Maestri is clearly having a blast—a far cry, in every way, from where he was upon returning from fighting in Fallujah, in 2005.

“I was filled with anxiety,” says the burly, bearded Berkshires resident. “I didn’t leave the house.” The former infantryman would make the occasional 6 a.m. foray to Walmart but was overwhelmed by all the people and the bustle and would hastily retreat home, where he lived in isolation.

Then a friend recommended he try the Wounded Warrior Project. Based in Florida, the nonprofit organization has been working with vets since its founding by a group of friends in 2003 and has served more than 80,0000 vets since. “I had told my buddy I was stressing, and he said they’d send me to a ballgame or something,” Maestri recalls. Anything to get him out and among the living again. But Maestri was skeptical.

“I got a call, and they asked me to go on an Odyssey, and it was a big deal for me,” he says. “To go from not leaving my house to going on that Odyssey: It was a big step. And it led to many more steps.”

Named for the long journey Odysseus makes back home after fighting in the Trojan War, Project Odyssey is the Wounded Warrior Project’s signature program for combat vets. These retreats take a dozen or so vets to places like the Highland Center for four or five days of outdoor activity combined with indoor group-therapy sessions—“using recreation and nature to heal the spirit,” as the organization puts it.

It’s another Odyssey, two years after his first outing, that brings Maestri and 10 other warriors—ages 28 to 60-plus, from every service but the Coast Guard—to the Highland Center this winter. Only this time he’s attending as a peer mentor. Maestri feels the Odyssey worked wonders for him, and he wants to give something back. “It was truly an eye-opening experience,” he says. “It changed the whole direction of my life. It was grounding. It was empowering.”

*****

Maestri’s story brings a smile to the face of Ryan Casavant, who has been working for the Wounded Warrior Project for two years, at its office in Cambridge, Mass. Powerfully built, he looks every bit the Marine sergeant he used to be, but he now sports an everpresent Red Sox cap turned backward, an earring, and a big beard. Once a member of a Marine unit nicknamed the Deathwalkers, Casavant served in Afghanistan in 2004 and Iraq in ’05, and he now uses his dual degrees in psychology and sociology to find ways to help his comrades heal—and to continue working on himself.

“I went to a Wounded Warrior event much like this one, to learn to ski and snowboard,” Casavant says. “It helped me immensely, just to be able to talk to others and find out they’ve had similar experiences.” The Marine first became an alum and then a staff member. Even though he’s been to 20-some-odd retreats now, he says every one he attends changes him: “I never walk away from an Odyssey the same person.”

At each Odyssey, vets work with a Project Odyssey specialist, a combat-stress-recovery specialist, and a licensed therapist. They generally spend days outdoors—skiing and snowboarding on this occasion, but often hiking, rafting, fishing, sailing, or on ropes courses— and then adjourn to a conference room in the evenings for group discussions. “We find that when you are physically exhausted, sometimes you are more able to open up,” Casavant says.

The activities often are designed to encourage the warriors to try something new. “We call it challenge by choice,” Casavant explains. “We’re trying to get them into their stretch zone so that their comfort zone grows,” as with today’s adventure at Bretton Woods. “We have many guys who have never skied or snowboarded before,” Casavant says. “But they’re willing to laugh and fall down and yardsale it on the side of the mountain and maybe get some help getting back up.” All the while they’re learning to trust and rely on others, taking in coping skills they can bring home.

The camaraderie alone is invaluable. “You get back into a group of guys, and you feel like you’re back in a platoon,” Maestri says. The vets share strategies for dealing with stress, family issues, depression, and isolation, and they often form tight bonds.

“You have 12 different guys with 12 different experiences,” Maestri says. “To get them all to come to their own epiphanies, that’s a real big deal. Ryan did that for me.”

“You did it for yourself,” Casavant replies.

*****

Wounded Warrior Project, which operates nationwide, first came to the Highland Center in 2013. Since then, AMC has sponsored more than 300 veterans and their family members for 21 different events at locations including the Mohican Outdoor Center in New Jersey and Greenleaf and Carter Notch huts in New Hampshire, in addition to the Highland Center.

“They use the healing power of nature, and we just provide the backdrop to foster that healing,” says John Darak, AMC’s liaison to the project. “It’s such a good fit. They come here, and we equip them and guide them, and their staff provides the therapy. It really is a perfect balance.”

Maestri agrees: “I’ve been to a lot of Wounded Warrior Project events, and this place is absolutely perfect. There are no TVs, no distractions. Everyone is downstairs right now, playing cards together. It forces people to mingle and talk and break down those barriers.”

Casavant enjoys bringing vets to places, such as this, that they’ve never been to before. “My part is to reintroduce New England to New Englanders,” he says. “I’ve heard a lot of warriors say, ‘Wow, I had no idea this was in my backyard.’ He gestures toward the surrounding mountains. “Hiking is free, and it doesn’t have to be on Mount Washington. You could be hiking in the state park down the road, with your family. Anything to get them off the couch, any kind of healthy way of dealing with stress.”

Maestri thinks that he might have found that healthy way. “My goal is to continue skiing,” he says. Back in the Berkshires, he has a buddy who is a mountain ambassador at a nearby ski area and who’s always trying to get Maestri to join in. “I struggle with isolation and motivation,” Maestri says. “I might have found the activity that gets me out.”

Plus, he knows that if ever needs them, Casavant and many other vets will be there for him. “Once they join the Wounded Warrior Project, there’s no expiration date,” Casavant says. “As we say, the greatest casualty is to be forgotten.”


LEARN MORE 

Read more about Wounded Warrior Project on the group’s website. To book your own stay at AMC’s Highland Center or another facility, visit AMC’s lodgings. To learn about AMC’s partnership with another inspiring veterans organization, read Bridging the Gap: How Warrior Hike Helps Vets Walk Off the War.


 

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Andrew Vietze

Andrew Vietze is a freelance writer, a Maine Guide, a Baxter State Park ranger, and the author of eight books, including 'Boon Island' and 'Becoming Teddy Roosevelt.'