Veterans Find Community and Healing in the Mountains
Slice of MIT
When Graham Rockwell MBA ’14 left the military after five years of active duty as an infantry officer, he knew he needed to find a new challenge. He settled on pursuing an MBA at MIT Sloan.
Rockwell says he felt immediately welcomed into the MIT community, particularly by the MIT Sloan Veterans Association, in which he would take on a copresident position in his second year. The shift from military to civilian life proved to be a smooth transition for Rockwell, but for many others leaving active duty, this is not the case, he says.
“There’s no greater camaraderie than what you find in the military,” he explains. “When you’re put into those circumstances, it creates an incredible bond. A lot of people in the military that move into the civilian sector find one of their biggest problems is not being able to find that same level of camaraderie.”
In 2014, Rockwell and three other veterans started 10th Mountain Healing to create a support network for veterans. Named after the founders’ deployment unit, the nonprofit grew from a shared love of skiing. Every year, the founders are joined by 15 to 16 veterans in Colorado in a group climb through the 10th Mountain Hut System—also named for their unit, which originated during WWII at Camp Hale, roughly 100 miles west of Denver. To reach the huts, the veterans, some with little prior experience, climb 2,500 to 3,000 feet through the back country from Camp Hale. “The journey of getting everybody equipped and getting them to the top of the mountain is the most powerful thing,” Rockwell says. Once there, the group spends three days talking about their time on duty, listening to and playing music, and skiing, snowboarding, or snowshoeing around to explore the local surroundings.
Any time in your life that you’re feeling stressed or need to just kind of reconnect with nature, the mountains are the place to do it for me.
For Rockwell, like his cofounders, this is a passion, but not a full-time endeavor—he works as product manager at Ruger Firearms. Partly for this reason, the founders are not focused on expansion, but Rockwell sees other reasons to keep the groups small. Although there are many other organizations out there addressing the reintegration of veterans, as well as PTSD and suicide prevention and awareness, he has observed that veterans nervous about engaging with a large organization are often among those who choose 10th Mountain. Also, at this small scale, the founders/guides are able to donate all of their time and expenses. As a result, 100 percent of donations go directly to the travel, lodging, and equipping of the veterans who take part in the hut trips.
What really sets the group apart, is its unique mission of healing the wounds from combat—seen and unseen—through a connection with the mountains.
“A lot of people have said this better than me—poets, authors—but any time in your life that you’re feeling stressed or need to just kind of reconnect with nature, the mountains are the place to do it for me,” says Rockwell, who lives in New Hampshire, not far from the White Mountains. “Being able to get to the top of the mountain and look out on everything—it really provides that kind of healing power to myself and to the other founders.” Having found this way to deal with the events of their time in the military, they are introducing the experience to other veterans, says Rockwell, “in the hope that it might be something that they could grab onto in their lives.”