VFW Magazine — February 2017
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The ‘No Barriers’ Life
Kelly Gibson

THROUGH AN INTENSIVE OUTDOOR CURRICULUM, DISABLED VETERANS CHALLENGE THEIR BODIES, MINDS AND SPIRITS. FOR SOME, THE PROGRAM HELPS THEM LEARN OUTDOOR SURVIVAL SKILLS. FOR MOST, NO BARRIERS WARRIORS, BASED IN COLORADO, HELPS THEM FIND PEACE AND HEALING AFTER LIVING THROUGH WAR.

Eric Donoho believes in fate. He says all choices led him to where he is now for a reason. Participating in No Barriers Warriors outdoor curriculum for disabled veterans changed his narrative for good.

Donoho joined the Army later than most. He reached out to a local Army recruiter in 2004 at 26 years old. He said it was something he had thought about doing since he was 18, but his father, who served as a Ranger in Vietnam, encouraged him to go to college.

“I’d like to say it was a noble calling,” Donoho said. “But we were at war. I was 26, not married. I wasn’t happy with life or what I was doing, and it just was something that would allow me to challenge myself in a way I’d never been challenged.”

Donoho said he was excited to see what he was made of. It was on the plane from Atlanta to his first duty station at Ft. Richardson, Alaska, where he met his wife.

“Fate,” he said.

Donoho served as a radio telephone operator with C Co., 3rd Bn., 509th Inf. Regt., and deployed to Iraq in October 2006. He was part of a scout sniper platoon at Forward Operating Base Kalsu.
Before Donoho stepped foot in Iraq, he received word that his wife had miscarried their son, David, at seven months, and he had to return to the United States. He immediately shipped back to Iraq after his son’s funeral.

On his first night back while on his first patrol, Donoho and his fellow soldiers encountered an improvised explosive device (IED).

“Having that trauma of losing my first son and then showing up and getting blown up right away, I realized that I had to be OK with death,” Donoho said.

Donoho, a member of Post 9981 in Anchorage, Alaska, described his experience as typical for any infantryman. He was “blown up” three times during his deployment. It was after the second blast he started getting migraines.

When Donoho returned home from Iraq in November 2007, he was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury. He wasn’t ready to acknowledge that he also had typical symptoms of PTSD.

“It was always present,” Donoho said. “I had trouble tracking. I was moody. [In war], you can be scared about dying, but at that end, are you going to be able to do the right thing when the time comes? I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to. I decided I needed to come to grips that I was going to die. Life in Iraq, every day, I woke up and thought, ‘Today is the day that I die.’ Accepting that idea in the morning made it easier to make the most out of my downtime. If I actually cared about living then I wouldn’t be able to do my job. You live that way for a long enough period then it becomes your outlook on life.”

Indeed, trauma and death followed Donoho home. In 2009, his wife was diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer. The couple also suffered seven miscarriages. Several of Donoho’s military friends committed suicide when they returned from war.

“It really reinforced how I had been living for a long time,” Donoho said. “I was just reacting to the situation, not really thinking about where I was.”

Donoho and his wife had a daughter in 2010, and a son in 2014. But their marriage was falling apart. Divorce seemed imminent.

“I realized it wasn’t just that I’ve experienced war, but it was also that I’ve lost my faith in humanity,” Donoho said. “I had two choices: make changes or die. Even if my wife left me, if I didn’t make changes then I might as well shoot myself. That’s kind of the way it stood for a few months.”

It was the suicide of a mentor that really pushed Donoho to focus on living.

“This gentleman, he was part of every adult thing that I did in my life,” Donoho said. “At that point, I realized that I don’t want my friends getting that phone call. I don’t want my kids to grow up without me. So I was committed to change on that day.”

That was the day he applied for No Barriers Warriors.

No Barriers Warriors is specifically designed for wounded veterans. Donoho said he had followed the program for some time, but didn’t think it was for him until he accepted that his mental wound was severe.

“The bomb blast twisted my brain up,” Donoho said. “I needed to figure out a way to remap all those connections that weren’t working properly.”

SKILL SETS VS. MINDSETS

No Barriers Warriors evolved out of the existing program, No Barriers USA, an outdoor experiential learning curriculum for people with disabilities. The organization was co-founded by Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to summit Mt. Everest. In 2011, on the 10th anniversary of Weihenmayer’s climb, he and a group of wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans summited Mt. Lobuche in the Himalayas. No Barriers USA officially added a veteran-centric extension to its organization in 2012.

Participants take part in a four-day excursion backpacking and climbing in austere conditions, free of charge. The curriculum, which accompanies the high-adventure trip, teaches the mantra, “What’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way,” encouraging participants to overcome life’s hurdles.

“We have a saying,” said John Toth, No Barriers Warriors executive director, “ ‘It’s not about skill sets, it’s about mindsets.’ When participants come to Colorado, we teach them how to use tools, but really we’re trying to change their mindset. Veterans need to be reminded of the strength they have in them.”

Toth, in a way, was saved by the “No Barriers life.” The Army veteran retired in 2011. By 2013, he had been unemployed for 15 months. He heard about an opening with No Barriers Warriors, and it was a perfect fit.

“No Barriers Warriors gives me the opportunity to impact people’s lives,” said Toth, a member at Post 1 in Denver. “Veterans struggling with PTSD or substance abuse… I’ve been there. They can be obstacles you feel like you can’t overcome. On month nine or 10 of unemployment, I needed someone to show me that I could still do it.”

In 2016, No Barriers Warriors coordinated 12 expeditions and served 125 veterans. According to Toth, No Barriers Warriors hopes to provide 17 expeditions to 180 veterans in 2017.

FINDING SUPPORT

Donoho was selected for the Wind River Range excursion in the spring of 2016. The 100-mile slice of the Rocky Mountains is located in western Wyoming and includes granite faces popular with rock climbers. This was Donoho’s chance to get out of his box.

For him, PTSD dictated a need to control his surroundings. He had “boxes” for every situation — a plan for being at home, a plan for running errands. Donoho maintained situational expectations and constant vigilance. But No Barriers Warriors threw any plan he could have made out the window. He wouldn’t have his cell phone to reach family. He was meeting and surviving with 12 people he didn’t know.

“When we talk about expectations, I was just trying to get over whether I was going to be able to do this,” Donoho said.

As the saying goes, even the bestlaid plans go to waste. Donoho’s trip to Wyoming was canceled due to a latespring snowstorm. No Barriers Warriors moved the location to the Gila wilderness, part of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest in the southwestern part of the state.

This was Donoho’s first challenge.

“I wanted to quit,” he said. “I didn’t want to go back to the desert. Been there, done that.”

With his wife’s encouragement, Donoho got on the plane, and within hours of landing, he said, he was laughing again.

“It was the first time in seven years I was talking and laughing,” Donoho said. “Genuinely having fun and enjoying camaraderie. I wasn’t the only one who thinks the way I think. It was amazing.”

Beyond camaraderie, Donoho said he learned to react to the world differently.

“War is black and white,” Donoho said. “You don’t have to think about it. But the civilian world is all grey. You get to choose your response. Instead of flying off the handle if I feel the urge, I walk out until I can think about what I want to say or do.”

Donoho and Toth both cite the importance of extensive follow-up veterans receive after the trip.

The program is set up in three phases: before, during and after the excursion. Veterans prepare for the excursion and learn the “no barriers life,” then they practice it all together outdoors, developing strong, lasting relationships, which Toth calls a “rope team.” The final phase includes following up after the veteran returns home.

Veterans make a pledge — some goal a participant has always wanted to make — and find actionable ways to follow through. No Barriers Warriors gives them support to complete their selfdriven mission as long as they need.

“I have a team behind me that wants to help me write that next chapter and vice versa,” Donoho said.

‘I WAS FULL OF HOLES’

After the first trip, Donoho experienced a post-program low. Toth personally reached out.

“We want it to be a difficult experience,” Toth said. “We don’t want them to go on an expedition and lose that connection. The final phase is making sure the boost doesn’t fade.”

Donoho opened up to Toth about his post-expedition struggles.

“It took me a couple of minutes to tell him the truth that I was embarrassed I wasn’t doing well,” Donoho said. “[Toth] said, ‘Look man, change isn’t going to happen overnight.’ I realized I’ve got a lot of work to do. I have a long climb up.”

Donoho was chosen to participate in No Barriers Warriors’ alumni climb in the San Juan mountain range of the Rockies in October 2016.

Because of injury and weather, Donoho was one of only three participants to reach the summit of Mt. Sneffels. This was the point of transcendence for him.

“I was full of holes, and while this experience has filled a lot of them in, there are a few still there that remind me of the past,” Donoho said. “I came down that mountain. It wasn’t the expedition that caused the change. It was the amazing people around me — the guides and staff. It was a natural progression. I was ready for it.”

An amateur photographer, Donoho made a goal to place his work in an art show. In October, he met that goal.

“It takes some effort, and you do need that little bit of a shove,” Toth said. “Sometimes you just need someone to encourage you and say, ‘You can do it, just keep going.’ ”

For more information about No Barriers Warriors, or to nominate a veteran for an excursion, visit www.nobarrierswarriors.org/vfw.

I WAS FULL OF HOLES, AND WHILE THIS EXPERIENCE HAS FILLED A LOT OF THEM IN, THERE ARE A FEW STILL THERE THAT REMIND ME OF THE PAST. I CAME DOWN THAT MOUNTAIN. IT WASN’T THE EXPEDITION THAT CAUSED THE CHANGE. IT WAS THE AMAZING PEOPLE AROUND ME — THE GUIDES AND STAFF.

IT WAS A NATURAL PROGRESSION. I WAS READY FOR IT.

ERIC DONOHO
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