Veterans seek respite, and solace, on the River of No Return 

The first American veteran on Idaho's main stem of the Salmon River was Capt. William Clark. He and Meriwether Lewis had split up to search for a route to the Pacific, but this one was not panning out. The rapids were too rough for the expedition's 1,000-pound dugout canoes, and the canyons proved too steep to portage around the whitewater. After exploring the upper reaches in moccasins, Clark complained, "I Sliped & bruised my leg very much on a rock." With that, he etched his name in a pine tree and got the heck out of there. That was in 1805.

Eventually, other explorers, fortune-seekers and recluses followed, braving the rough terrain to stake mining claims downstream. True to its cognomen as the River of No Return, it accommodated one-way traffic only. The miners built huge wooden boats laden with supplies and ventured down the rapids. If man and boat survived the passage, the boat would get cannibalized for a cabin and the miner would lay in for a long, long while.

The steep country that hemmed in the river was never ideal for human habitation. In 1980, Congress made the isolation official, designating the river and its surrounding mountains the largest chunk of the wilderness system in the Lower 48. The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, sometimes just called "the Frank," stretches across 2.3 million acres in the part of Idaho that starts to get skinny. The river running through it carves a long, forested gorge deeper than the Grand Canyon.

  • cover illustration by Graham Smith

It was through that gorge that another group of American veterans—all women, all scarred emotionally and physically by their service—descended in the summer of 2014. Like Clark, they were also on a voyage of discovery in the American wilds. I wanted to witness it. If one minute of gazing up at a eucalyptus tree makes people more generous, and three days makes them more socially connected, calm and inspired, what could a week unleash? Were the inverse-PTSD effects of awe real, and if so, would they show up in the brains that needed them most?

You have to be brave to venture down the Salmon, and a little bit addled. This group of women, sponsored by an Idaho-based nonprofit called Higher Ground, was both. Participants had to be former or current members of the military who suffer from PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. When I learned the organization was willing to invite a journalist, I signed on.

This was Higher Ground's first all-women's river trip. The plan was to float 81 miles of the river, try our skills at kayaking, rowing and paddle-boarding (non-mandatory), participate in "processing" groups and team-building activities (mandatory), eat together, collapse into tents, and then do it all over again the next day. On the sixth day, we'd leave the river, flying home off a dirt strip in small planes. Unlike the miners, we'd be returning to civilization, hopefully a little bit changed.

The night before launching our boats at the end of a dirt road, I met up with the women, gathered on a restaurant patio for pizza in the no-traffic-light town of Stanley, rimmed by the vaulting, aptly named Sawtooth Mountains. This clearly was not your usual river-rat crowd. These women were on the whole younger, more ethnically diverse and less able-bodied. The nine former service members carried an assortment of cigarettes, butch hairstyles, tattoos, piercings and physical supports that included a cane, orthopedic tape and an arm splint. Collectively, they brought a small pharmacy's worth of anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants, anti-seizure meds, painkillers, digestive aids and sleeping pills. One service dog, Major, a yellow lab mix, wore a bib that read "Do Not Pet." The warning could have applied to anyone. Heavy-lidded and surly after a long day of travel, they were not about to smile for a bunch of cowtown selfies.

The recreation therapists, Brenna Partridge and Kirstin Webster, handed out matching black fleece jackets emblazoned with the unique crest of this "unit"HG-714-RA, which stood for Higher Ground, July 14, Rafting. (Other Higher Ground units, typically coed or all-male, might spend a week fly-fishing or skiing or doing lake sports.)

Partridge smiled and asked us to introduce ourselves and talk about why we wanted to be on the trip. Marsha Anderson (some names, including hers, have been changed) described being medevaced out of Afghanistan on a stretcher, convinced for a while that she was already dead. It took her 13 months to relearn to walk. Now she felt angry, misunderstood by her family and cheated of the sports she loved like surfing and cycling. She was hoping to find some new ones, along with new friends who had been through what she'd been through.

Carla Garcia, 35, described how she'd volunteered for the first Iraq invasion in 2003 and then returned as a vehicle commander running fuel convoys across the war zone from Al Taqaddum. In 2005, her truck hit a roadside bomb and she was blasted from it, landing on her head. Her driver died. During her third tour, in Mosul, another bomb exploded, crashing her head against the vehicle roof and pelting her with shrapnel. Garcia pulled her ailing driver from the smoking wreckage and fought off insurgents with her M-16 until she passed out. (She received both a combat action badge and a Purple Heart, I found out later.) Doctors induced a weeklong coma to relieve pressure in her brain. Afterward, she had to learn how to talk. In addition to chronic pain, she suffers seizures, headaches, mood swings and nightmares. She can't walk far, won't drive and can barely stand being in any kind of vehicle. "I don't like crowds and I don't like people," she said. "This will be hard."

After dinner, we grouped for the processing talk, our first one, to articulate goals for the trip. That's when Kate Day, a Navy vet in her 50s from Las Vegas, mentioned her three-year stint of homelessness, a stay in a mental institution and her near-inability to leave her house. Two other women chimed in that they, too, had been institutionalized. One said she was still so depressed she didn't want to keep living. Another said her anger and misery had alienated her whole family. Another, sitting expressionless, said in a flat voice that she wanted some time to "be in the moment and not zone out." A skinny blonde wearing a sparkly blue sundress and pink sunglasses, whom I'll call Pam Hana, showed the opposite affect: maniacally chatty, never still. She woke up scared and crying because she hated airplanes and had successfully avoided them for years until this trip.

  • illustration by Graham Smith

Tania Herrera, wearing a Gilliganesque fishing hat over her dark, cropped hair, talked about being limited by her body. First struck by shrapnel near Fallujah, then catapulted by a car bomb along her convoy route and finally struck by pieces of a collapsing mosque hit by a grenade, the former Army gunner now had one working arm, a bad leg and a brain that didn't work too fast. Thirty-four years old, she rarely left her house near Fort Bragg. "It sucks to think that's the way life is going to be, stuck in a rut," she said. "It seems like a life sentence."

Petite with smooth skin and a friendly, wide mouth, Herrera also told us that she now had trouble making friends, and on top of that, she had some serious hair issues. "I used to have long hair but can't figure out how to do it with one arm," she said. "I used to sit on my hair like Medea. I'm not that girly, but to have it stripped away from you is hard. I don't want to go to family weddings because I can't look pretty."

Partridge, the group leader, gave Herrera her marching orders: "Find someone to bond with. This is your unit now."

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