Guest blog written by Iraq Veteran Saif Khan. He serves as the Founder & CEO of Khanections, LLC. and is a recipient of the President’s Volunteer Service Award. Saif is a member of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, American Legion and a life member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
I had the privilege to join eight fellow veterans on a hiking trip organized by the Sierra Club Mission Outdoors with partnership with Extreme Outdoor Survey (EIS). The trip in Glacier National Park this past August was an expedition through Glacier National Park to study climate change and learn about the environment. Most of our gear was provided to us through sponsorships from The North Face and Black Diamond including our hiking boots. The Sierra Club provided all the food we would need for the entire trip. All of us split the responsibility to carry essentials and food for the entire group in our backpacks; no more daily luxuries of a new pair of underwear every morning.
This was my first time hiking at Glacier National Park. The trip brought back memories of the last time I had hiked long distances with fellow service members. It was during my Army training at Ft. Leonard Wood, MO and then in the Kuwaiti desert acclimatizing to the weather before entering Iraq in 2004. We marched quite a few miles with a heavy backpacks and our weapons back then. Although, different terrain, I felt the same as I was climbing the peaks of Glacier National Park with our group of veterans with backpacks. However, I was glad to substitute the weapon for a trekking pole and felt no threat of being shot at or any danger from IED’s. We only had to worry about bears and we all carried cans of bear repellent just incase. I had a chance to experience and enjoy the beautiful America I fought for and helped protect when I was deployed overseas.
After returning home from the combat zone in 2005, my main focus was to get back into school, graduate and look for a job or internship. I had never had a chance to take a trip like this with fellow service members while not on military orders, to experience and enjoy our beautiful country, until now. When a service member comes back home from deployment, like me, they are usually caught up in the routine of transitioning back to civilian life, getting back to their job or trying to find a new one. Once they transition back and start working, they spend a majority of their time, going to work and spending time with family on weekends. Most veterans never get a chance to re-connect and travel to experience and appreciate the land they fought and help protect. This trip to Glacier National Park allowed me to experience and see how beautiful our country was and made me realize that, while we fought to preserve our freedoms while fighting the enemies of America, we also fought to preserve this beautiful land and the environment we enjoy.
It was a great opportunity to connect with other veterans one on one, sharing our deployment and combat stories with each other, away from cell phones and computers as we hiked to the glaciers. We got to know each other pretty well after spending a week hiking and camping. We had a chance to learn about climate change and the alarming rate at which the glaciers were melting at the national park. Award winning photographer Jim Balog joined us on the trip as well as Conrad Anker, one of the world’s leading climbers.
We had a chance to see photographs of the glaciers from previous years and how much they had receded. I was disappointed to find out that these glaciers might not exist in 20 years. It made me realize that we need to start focusing on our environment and needed to do a better job protecting our outdoors so future generations of Americans can continue to enjoy our land.
It took me a day to break in my boots and getting my muscles used to the Glacier National Park terrain. I was lucky to learn climbing techniques from Conrad Anker. I really got a chance to experience the camaraderie and fraternity we share as veterans on the first day of the trip when at one point my right knee hurt so much that I was unable to raise my leg and take long steps. We were on a 14-mile trail and I was not used to climbing uphill for more than two miles. Fellow veterans helped take some of the load off by helping carrying my heavy backpack for a few miles. That night I camped with another veteran, Nick Watson, who stayed back as my battle buddy while the rest of the group moved on to another campsite in the morning. I stayed back because the new campsite was at an elevation of about 6,500 feet, through very treacherous terrain and we were not sure if I could make it up there with my knee pain. After taking painkillers and a day to recover at the campsite, I was ready to go the next day and my knee felt great.
I had never hiked through such difficult terrain before. After hiking for a mile and half, there was no more trail. We had to make our own trail through waterfalls, boulders and glaciers. We kept on going while drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated and refilling our water bottles at waterfalls and glaciers. After hiking for about five hours, the new campsite was within our view. Conrad Anker, Major John Turner and Stacy Bare spotted us and rushed to our location. Conrad took my backpack and gave me a high five and carried it for the final stretch. They were very excited to see us and the rest of the group was pretty surprised as they didn’t expect to see us and cheered us on as we approached the campsite. I thanked all the fellow veterans who helped me carry my pack the day before and my battle buddy Nick who had stayed back at the other campsite and helped me navigate through the rough terrain. It brought back combat memories. It reminded me of the military creed where we don’t leave anyone behind whether they are injured, captured or dead.
I would highly recommend trips such as this one, hosted by the Sierra Club Mission Outdoors for fellow veterans. It was one of the greatest experiences I have ever had. Not only did I have a chance to experience our great outdoors, I had a chance to make some good friends who share the same values and experiences as me while learning about climate change and our environment. This is a trip I will never forget.
Saif Khan is an Iraq Veteran. He serves as the Founder & CEO of Khanections, LLC. He is a recipient of the President’s Volunteer Service Award. He is a member of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, American Legion and a life member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.