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Sam Cook / Forum Communications Co., Published March 11 2012

Veterans endure Outward Bound’s difficult dogsledding, ski course

Ely, Minn.

It was the ninth improvised explosive device in Iraq that got him, Erick Millette said. He was a combat patrol leader in the Army serving near Balad, Iraq, in October 2006.

“I had just re-enlisted,” he said. “We were on patrol. The blast came from a roadside bomb made from four 155-mm explosive rounds.”

Those are artillery shells about the size of your thigh. The concussion from the blast wracked the Humvee in which Millette was riding, slamming his head against a radio mount and twisting his body so violently that it tore his knee apart.

Millette, an Army veteran from Paxton, Mass., was telling his story last week in a wall tent heated by a woodstove on Gabbro Lake. Eight of us were gathered in the tent, where the woodstove was rosy red, kicking out heat on this below-zero January night.

The 34-year-old Millette was one of five veterans on an eight-day Outward Bound dogsledding and skiing course in the million-acre wilderness along the Minnesota-Ontario border. All of us, including Millette’s fellow vets, listened in silence as he told his story.

The roadside blast caused Millette’s sixth concussion in two tours of duty in Iraq, and he would need multiple surgeries to repair his knee.

“My career was over,” Millette said. He began to sob softly. The tent was silent except for the purring of the woodstove.

“My transition home was pretty sh–-,” he said through his tears. Now back home, he said, he had lost the confidence he once had.

“I almost didn’t get on the plane to come here,” he had said on the trail that morning. “I had no confidence about coming out here.”

He is self-conscious about being a vet. He wonders what others think of him, what assumptions they make about him when they see the bronze star on his license plate.

Sharing among vets

One by one, that night in the wall tent, the other vets told their stories from Iraq and Afghanistan. They felt safe sharing their experiences in this wilderness setting, surrounded by their fellow service members.

That’s exactly the purpose of these Outward Bound trips for vets. The courses, offered from Ely to Florida to North Carolina to Colorado, give vets a way to connect with each other and to help them as they readjust to life beyond the military.

Voyageur Outward Bound School at Ely offers several vets trips each winter. Sixteen of this winter’s 34 trips at the school are for vets. All of the vets trips, including the vets’ flight costs, are funded by private donations and foundations.

“It’s a much easier choice to do a trip with vets,” said Andrew Torchia, 26, an Army veteran of three tours in Iraq. “You have that common ground. I hate walking into a crowd when you don’t know anyone.”

Tough by design

In the morning, we fed our 11 sled dogs and hit the trail again. Outward Bound trips are not easy, and this vets trip was no exception. We would cover 25 miles in a little more than five days of travel, some of it on frozen lakes, some of it on gnarly portages between lakes. Half the group skied each day, while four others drove two dog teams pulling sleds loaded with 500 pounds of gear.

“Ready, dogs!” cried Jaysi Bennetto, 26, the only woman on the trip and an Army veteran who served as a petroleum supply specialist in Afghanistan. “Let’s go!”

The portage from Bald Eagle Lake to Gull Lake is more than half a mile long and makes a steep and rocky ascent. It’s difficult enough with a loaded dogsled in a good snow year, but this hasn’t been a good snow year. The rocks lie just beneath the snow, waiting to snag the hard plastic runners on our sleds.

The image of a dog team loping over the snow with a lightweight sled flying along behind is nothing like the reality of a winter camping trip. Torchia learned that his first day behind a team.

“It was one of the coolest and hardest experiences of my life,” he said.

Bennetto and I, paired for that day’s travel, heaved against our sled on the Bald Eagle-to-Gull portage. Up front, lead dogs Oates and Tally, along with Merk and Walker and Sue, strained against their tug lines. The sled lurched forward a few feet at a time, only to ground itself on another boulder.

Again and again, we readied the dogs and urged them forward. Again and again, we put our shoulders to the load and tried to shove it up the hill. Up ahead, Millette and Heide fought the same battle with their dogsled. Sometimes the skiers would come back to help, and five or six of us would push and pull to inch a sled up the hill. Occasionally, the entire procession ground to a halt as we took out saws to clear fallen trees.

Even Heide found the going plenty tough.

“That was a brutal day,” he would say later.

But cool things began to happen as we struggled and succeeded. One could feel everyone’s confidence growing and the dynamics of the group changing. We loosened up. We trusted each other more. We began to feel as if nothing could stop us.

Snow sculptures

Our final night on the trail, Heide and co-instructor Jeff Weaver asked us to craft a snow sculpture that symbolized something we had learned on the course. We plodded into the deep snow of our bay on the Kawishiwi River and went to work.

Most were simple creations. Vandervlugt sculpted eight human figures in a circle to symbolize the team we had become. Bennetto created a small house because she said she had learned to feel “at home” on the winter trail. Imrich re-created the strewn bones of a wolf-killed deer he had encountered a day earlier.

Millette sculpted his snow into a giant coffee cup. With leftover cranberry juice from that day’s water bottle, he stained the bottom half the cup red

“This is my cup of life,” Millette said. “Before I came on this trip, my cup of life was half empty. But after being out here, especially after some thinking I did last night, I’m going to look at my cup as half full.”

Sam Cook is the outdoors writer for the Duluth News Tribune, a Forum Communications Co. newspaper