THE ARIZONA TRAIL
When I had just received my honorable discharge/medical retirement from the Army, I was unsure of what to pursue. At one of my regular therapy sessions, my VA counselor Suzanne Perkins suggested I look into a new program at the University of Arizona launched the year before. I had used a little bit of my GI Bill already at Cochise Community College in Sierra Vista, and agreed to check it out. She told me there was going to be an event on the Marine Corps Birthday around the corner and invited me to join her there.
My first day at the University of Arizona Veterans Education and Transition Services (V.E.T.S.) Center was on Tuesday, November 10th, 2009. There was a big celebration to honor the Marine Corps Birthday with cake and the whole nine yards. As I walked into the Center I noticed immediately, other than the massive crowd, that there was a podium set up for a speaker. I took my brother with me who had just got out of prison a couple of weeks before that, and to say that we stuck out like a sore thumb would be an understatement. My gut reaction was to get out. Quickly.
Before I could act on this instinct, I was approached by a handful of veterans who reached out their hands and essentially walked me into the middle of the Center while talking to me. I couldn’t get away. It was a lot to take in all at once. I was meeting veterans who were taking classes, instructors who were veterans, administrators who handle registration paperwork, VA psychologists who were leading a new course on campus, and Congresswoman Gabby Giffords who was there to speak. Overwhelming, Batman.
By the time I left I had filled out and completed my registration, handed it to the proper people to process it, filled out my FAFSA, and had basically been volun-told about a community service project coming up that week… and I got a piece of cake. I don’t even remember talking to my brother afterward. I’m sure we did, but I simply don’t remember. The next thing I knew I was at the V.E.T.S. Center every day. We were an active bunch from 2010-2013, and were all over campus, the city of Tucson, the state of Arizona, and across the country working with other passionate citizens.
One of our greatest champions was Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, and we did what we could to support her in the community. As such, we worked closely with her community outreach director, Gabe Zimmerman. My first two semesters at the UofA were a whirlwind, and before I knew it 2011 was right there. On January 8th, 2011, at a “Congress on your corner” event, Congresswoman Giffords and others were shot in a mass casualty event, six of whom would subsequently die as a result of their wounds. Gabe Zimmerman was one of the number who lost their lives.
Many things have been written about this event, and I am not looking to be another one who chimes in. The only reason I bring it up, is because of a recent experience I had that I was not expecting. Immediately following the shooting we were all stunned and the veterans in the V.E.T.S. Center, as well as within the Tucson community got each other through that very challenging time. After paying our respects, and mourning the loss of friends, community members, and innocent life taken, we came back with action on our minds. From that day forward community service doesn’t feel like community service. It feels like something bigger.
I turned into a habitual volunteer. Helping people helps me. It helps me feel better about myself. Helps me look myself in the mirror. Helps me empathize with my neighbors. And helps me get out of my shell. About a month or so ago I volunteered to help install a neighborhood sign. As with all volunteer projects, one of the fun things for me is to meet new people. On that day I met a neighbor who works with the Arizona Trail Association (ATA), and he told me about a new program for veterans I should check out. I did, and the first event on the calendar was a trail cleanup at the Gabe Zimmerman Trailhead.
Seems these days there are anniversaries, and reminders of upcoming anniversaries everywhere, and this one was coming on top of a lot. The end of the war in Afghanistan, the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, and others. When the day came for me to follow through on my commitment to volunteer at the trailhead, I couldn’t break free of my shell. I just could not get myself up and out of the house. For whatever reason. Home just felt better.
I didn’t feel good about myself for it. I was ashamed of myself actually. Felt like I let people down, not just myself. Then a message popped up on my phone from the event organizer, Chappy. He wanted to let me know there was another opportunity the following day to lend a hand. Grateful for the opportunity, I promised to be there.
On September 13th, 2021 I showed up to the Gabe Zimmerman Trail fully caffeinated, with water and snacks in tow. Chappy was already there with other ATA volunteers `getting the equipment ready to take down with us into the valley. I didn’t count how many of us there were, but a good number of us eventually marched single file down the trail and began work. There’s something about bonding over manual labor, especially when it is to help others out. I’m not going to go on about the morning, except to say that it was therapeutic and fun.
I’m grateful for the memory of great people who lived in my hometown, and of the examples they left for us to follow. I’m grateful for new friends like Chappy who care enough to double back. I’m grateful to have opportunities like this to re-engage with the community I love.
If you’ve read this far, and you also have trouble getting out every now and then, please be kind to yourself. Take it as fast, or as slow as you need to, but please keep going. Please keep trying. You’re needed out here.
** Get involved with the Arizona Trail Veterans Program here, and follow them on social media for more information: #aztrailvets/@aztrailvets.