Some traumatized Pennsylvania veterans heal with the power of nature
ALLENTOWN, PA (AP) – Mario Kovach was standing at the start of a trail near Hawk Mountain the other day, with the Appalachian Trail stretching all the way to Maine in one direction and Georgia in the other and a perfect blue sky shedding sunshine. over everything – a red car parked by the side of the road, a group of friendly hikers stopping among their piles of gear to rest and drink water.
He slowly turned his right forearm, displaying 20 surnames of men and women tattooed in patterned font, he said, after the one on headstones at Arlington National Cemetery.
All died in the service of their country. Solesbee, Bell, Schwartz, Seidler, Weiner, Miller, Loncki, Moss. Again and again. As members of the U.S. Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit, they were nerve-racking experts in the work of defusing bombs, including improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, which have killed so many soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This was also Kovach’s job during his 20 years in the Air Force. The Pottstown native, who retired in 2018, has survived five rotations through Afghanistan without serious injury except for his psyche. It is this wound that the retired Staff Sgt has healed on the trails and in other places where nature is still able to soften the sharp edges of the artificial world and silence its ceaseless screams and roars.
“It’s a natural stimulus versus an artificial stimulus,” he said. “Nature is nothing that man controls. It is the combination of the environment and the loneliness that makes me feel like I am resetting my internal locus.
This is where Cindy Ross makes history. She is a longtime writer and hiker whose adventures in travel and education have filled nine books so far.
The latest, “Walking Towards Peace – Veterans Healing on America’s Trails,” concerns the veterans Ross serves through the nonprofit River House PA, which is headquartered in the log cabin that ‘she and her husband Todd Gladfelter built 30 years ago in East Brunswick Township, Schuylkill County.
The organization was born out of Ross’ experience with some veterans who hiked the trail in 2013, meaning they hiked the 2,180 miles. When the group stopped in Albany Township, she and Gladfelter hosted a dinner for them at the chalet, listening to the stories they told about the horrors of war and the unexpected happiness they found during strenuous but beautiful hike along the trail.
“It’s a place where they can find peace,” said Ross, who speaks intensely and earnestly, like someone who shares information you absolutely need to know.
This is, after all, an urgent matter. Post-traumatic stress disorder – PTSD – is rampant among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, one study suggests the rate is as high as 30%. Many Vietnam veterans still carry the burden.
Veterans are also committing suicide in extraordinary numbers. Military suicide has rightly been called an epidemic – the Department of Veterans Affairs says nearly 18 veterans committed suicide per day in 2018. And although rates have declined among veterans who received treatment by through the ministry, much work remains to be done.
Kovach is one of the veterans described in Ross’s book. These are men and women who have seen the worst of the worst and, in many cases, bordered on suicide before discovering nature’s restorative power – manifested in the flute cry of a wood thrush, the rattle from a woodpecker, the glimpse of a sun-speckled deer among the trees.
Ross worked with Veterans Affairs early on and word of the program spread. Water too – they do a lot of tubing and paddling. Paralyzed veterans can ride adaptive mountain bikes on the trails.
At the end of those days, they meet up at Ross and Gladfelter’s and, like that first night, have dinner and gather around a fire.
“At least a few of them were crying and going, ‘It was the best day of my life,'” said Ross. “They say, ‘I have to do this with my family and my kids.'”
The most rewarding messages are the messages from veterans telling her that a day in the wilderness was crucial in saving their lives.
Kovach, who grew up in the shadow of the cooling towers of the Limerick Nuclear Power Plant and now lives in upstate New York with his wife and two sons, was wary of what drove him disposal of explosives.
“I didn’t go there on purpose,” he said, then turned to a discussion of the history of the ammunition disposal unit – how it evolved from the need to clean the streets of English towns from time bombs dropped by the Nazis in Luftwaffe Raids.
All four military branches have EOD units. Kovach said the Air Force unit numbered in the hundreds, but it was a tight-knit group nonetheless.
“Most that I knew or worked with to some extent,” Kovach said of the deceased colleagues whose names cover his arm.
He told how some of them perished. Airmen Timothy Weiner, Daniel Miller and Elizabeth Loncki – Team Lima – died in Iraq in 2007 when a device they were investigating exploded. Technical Sgt. Kristoffer M. Solesbee was killed by a bomb in Afghanistan.
Airmen Matthew Seidler, Bryan Bell and Matthew Schwartz “were hit by a giant IED” in Afghanistan in 2012, Kovach said. “And Walt Moss was the first EOD killed in Iraq.” It was in 2006.
Carrying such memories, not to mention the accumulated stress of moving through war zones where every moment was a threat, turned Kovach into a different man, a change he sums up in Ross’s book:
“Guys like me thrive in crisis situations. But the more you are in combat, the more your nature begins to change. Our sons cross. You might be in a mall at home on leave, but the hypervigilance mode is skyrocketing. I feel like I have to pay close attention to the details and can’t turn it off in a normal situation. We don’t have a switch. For so long and so often, I needed to keep the team alive. Urgency becomes the norm. This lifestyle has completely eroded my nerves.
In 2019, Kovach hiked the 85-mile Susquehannock Trail in Potter and Clinton counties. It was there that he learned that nature can restore what life has taken.
“Not a single part of me on this hike felt like I was on a mission,” he told Ross. “I was not teleported to the mountains of Afghanistan.”
Kovach is keenly aware that for every vet who finds healing and solace, many more still struggle to despair. Last fall, he co-founded “Project Felix,” a non-profit group for unit technicians dealing with survivor guilt and other trauma.
“We are trying to breach the ether of military suicides,” he said.
There are ways of healing other than hiking and boating, of course, but Kovach said a day in the woods – or a week, or a month – has to be counted among the best.
“It doesn’t cost anything,” he said. “You don’t take any medication. And you can do it anytime.