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An Iraq veteran finds healing as he hikes from Mexico to Canada


For Army veteran Alex Seling, his ailing right knee has been the weak link on a slow trek from the Mexico border to Canada that began last spring. The pain never entirely goes away, sometimes slowing his gait to a limp, or compelling him to rest for a few days before resuming his hike north.

This is not some old war wound. It’s self-inflicted. Depression mixed with rage led him last winter to slam his leg into a vacuum cleaner in his Los Angeles apartment.

His swollen knee turned knee red and purple, and thrust Seling into a dark place. He felt his life lacked the purpose, passion and camaraderie experienced during a 2008 tour as a combat medic in Iraq, and he thought of suicide.

“It became scary because I was so calm about it,” Seling recalled. “It was like ‘you know what you can do, and just get out of this right now’ … I realized I had to make a drastic change.”

As his knee appeared to heal, he started hiking. That made him feel better, and got him thinking about a much longer journey.

So in late March, several months after his injury, he started making his way through California along the Pacific Crest Trail. Wildfires and, more recently, the growing mountain snowpack, made him adjust. He typically hikes 15 to 20 miles a day along low-land highways, roads and bike paths — far from his initial backcountry route.

Seling, 30, is part of a wave of younger veterans who have looked to long-distance treks, rock climbing, mountain biking and other outdoor activities as a powerful therapy to help regain their footing in civilian life. They follow in the footsteps of generations of veterans from the Vietnam War and World War II who sought healing in nature.

Some are sponsored by organizations such as Veterans Expeditions that organizes mountain and rock climbs, and Warrior Expeditions, which assists with gear, clothing and equipment and financing for long-distance hikes. During the past year, 350 veterans applied for 40 slots on hikes.

The groups also offer counseling support, and some veterans seek VA assistance along their routes.

“We call it reverse basic training,” said Shauna Joye, a Georgia psychologist who works with Warrior Expeditions. “It is a way to do therapy that doesn’t have stigma. “This is something more badass, and it’s a throwback to the physical exertion that people have had to do in military service.”

Seling opted for a seat-of-the-pants approach to his hiking marathon.

He organized an online fundraising campaign that by mid-October had raised $8,700 to finance his trip. He has pledged to donate any money in excess of his expenses to a nonprofit — Mission 22 — that seeks to curb veteran suicides. The organization assists veterans with alternative treatments for post traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries, and also has developed memorials that honor veterans lost to suicide.

“We want to recognize the sacrifice they made, and not make it a point of shame for families,” said Eric O’Neal, a Newcastle veteran who volunteers for Mission 22.

Veterans overall have a suicide rate 22 percent higher than the general population, according to a Department of Veterans Affairs study that counted 7,388 veteran suicides in 2014. That study found the rate was nearly double among those under age 35.

Veterans who take their own lives have a wide range of service experiences, many far from the front lines. A 2015 Defense Department study of nearly 4 million post-9/11 Afghanistan and Iraq service members and veterans found no significant difference in suicide rates between those who had deployed and those who had not.

“Loss of a shared military identity, difficulty developing a new social-support system, or unexpected difficulties finding meaningful work may contribute to a sense that the individuals do not belong or are a burden on others,” wrote the authors of that study.

Emerging from struggle

Seling spent a year in Iraq as part of more than three years of military service.

He said no soldiers were killed or seriously wounded by enemy fire in his platoon of the Hawaii-based 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment.

Still, he endured a tense year, with the ever-present risk of attack helping to keep adrenaline levels high, and bonding the soldiers together. Soon after his return, Seling said he began to founder.

“It didn’t take long to discover that life was not the same,” Seling said. “I didn’t want to go to the movies. I didn’t want to go out. I didn’t really want to hang out with people anymore. And whenever I did, I had the strong urge to isolate myself. And a lot of times, drink.”

He used his veterans benefits to go back to school in Los Angeles to pursue a career teaching music and as a bass guitarist.

He found a job as a teaching assistant, but his struggles continued.

Seling sought help from the Department of Veterans Affairs. He said he got counseling and pills such as Zoloft, an antidepressant, and Ambien, a sedative. He found some of his greatest relief in hikes around Southern California, and that prompted the decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.

After months on the move, his life has settled down to some basic routines as he grinds on mile after mile. His meals are a constant round of burritos: breakfast burritos of granola, Nutella and peanut butter, and dinner burritos filled with tuna or summer sausage.

There have been occasional nights of luxury in a bed. But for the most part, he has camped at sites along the Pacific Crest Trail and more recently under bridges, or in patches of forest he finds near roadways or rivers.

His time on the trail in California took him across high mountain passes still heavy with snow, and creeks swollen by meltwater.

But the biggest challenge has been his knee, which began to throb a few days after he started his hike. His morning ritual includes an 800-milligram dose of ibuprofen that dulls the pain until later in the day.

He has repeatedly pushed aside doubts that he would make it all the way to Canada.

“I am not going to sit here and tell veterans not to give up on life if I am just going to give up on a little walk,” Seling said. “After I get to Canada. That’s when I rest. That’s when I heal.”

Joye, the Georgia psychologist, has surveyed some veterans who made long-distance hikes. At the end of the trail, she found improvements among those who have had problems adjusting to civilian life. She cautions that the quest for mental health may be a lifelong pursuit that, for some, may include more time on hikes.

As for Seling, he has a lot of trail time to think about his life, which he feels he can tackle with more confidence and mental toughness. Other than write a book, he still is not sure what he wants to do when he finally reaches Canada sometime in November. That will be more than seven months after he set out, far longer than the five-month average for those who hike the Pacific Crest Trail.

Selig celebrated his birthday Oct. 20 in Castle Rock, and found a quiet spot along the Cowlitz River to pass the rainy night.

After a breakfast burrito in his tent and a cup of coffee at a local bakery, he put on his pack and started walking out of town.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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