It wasn’t one event in the outdoors that saved Andrew Collins’ life.
It was when the Iraq combat veteran realized every time he felt lost, or things darkened, or the noise grew louder in his head, he grabbed his backpack or fishing rod and headed outside.
“The only way I could find some sense of normal,” he said.
Call it what you will: outdoor therapy, wilderness healing or just plain recreation. But for Collins, the power of being outdoors, of working through problems with other veterans under sun and in fresh air, has kept him from taking his own life.
The airborne infantry veteran in Lander spent six years on active duty in the Army, with two deployments in Iraq. He lost six friends in the war, and his squad leader since he came back home. In 2012, he tried to kill himself. Doctors had him on 17 pills a day, and in 2014 decided he needed a change.
“I began to find other ways to deal with the pain. Being outdoors helped me mentally. I found value in the outdoors and that is drawing back to as a kid,” said Collins, who grew up in Idaho. “It allows a sense of peace, a sense of calm.”
Collins isn’t alone in his struggles. Each year, about 7,300 veterans commit suicide in the United States. Reasons are varied, complex and nuanced, but Collins and C. Michael Fairman know what can help: communication, community awareness and camaraderie based in and around the outdoors.
And Saturday, Collins will join Fairman and a handful of other veterans and volunteers to climb Gannett Peak, Wyoming’s highest summit, as part of a program called Summit for Soldiers.
Fairman co-founded Summit for Soldiers formally in 2014 as a way to build communities of veterans and non-veterans across the country. But its roots are simpler: He likes to climb.
The Ohio resident and climber served as a Navy Corpsman for 19 years and came back home with a mixture of bipolar, depression and PTSD.
In 2012, after a suicide attempt, he realized he needed to reclaim his life, and become, as he describes it, “re-abled.” He also wanted to show other veterans what they can do with renewed purpose.
On a climb up Mount Rainier in 2008, Fairman began noticing the healing power of not just the outdoors but working as a team to tackle challenges outside. When he returned to Rainier in 2013, he realized the full force of what the climbing missions could be.
So he began writing names of fellow veterans he knew or others knew who died of suicide on a flag, and to raise awareness he started carrying that flag to the highest summits in all 50 states. At the same time, he vowed to climb the seven summits – the highest points on each continent.
He reached the top of Kilimanjaro in 2014, and on May 19, 2016, he carried his flag on the top of the world.
Then his goal changed from a personal mission to a rapidly expanding nonprofit.
“It’s about activity and reconnecting. As veterans we will sit back and ask 'Are you a veteran, and are you a combat veteran?,' but outdoor activity neutralizes everything,” he said. “It starts as a distraction. You focus on the safety of the climb … We were a team in the military, and we are working as a team again.”
He still plans to reach the top of each peak in every state -- he has more than half done now -- but he’s also focused on building Summit for Soldiers chapters in more states. The chapters are made of veterans and local groups like the Wyoming Outdoor Council.
“This kind of work is really at the heart of our mission and is an essential part of the Wyoming Outdoor Council’s origins,” said Gary Wilmot, executive director of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “Tom Bell came back from World War II an incredibly wounded man, both physically and spiritually, and he went out into the public lands around Lander, into the Red Desert, into the mountains, to heal. This experience was profound for him, and it’s one of the reasons he was driven to create the Wyoming Outdoor Council — to protect these public lands so future generations could experience them and benefit from them, too.”
Collins, the Lander veteran, is going along on the Gannett Peak trip, and in September, he plans to move to Kentucky to work at the Life Adventure Center to help augment what the center has, learn different approaches that are based around the outdoors and to gain insight into programs that help veterans.
But he’ll return to Wyoming and its mountains and rivers and rocks. And he wants to continue working with veterans and the outdoors.
“I am drawn to Wyoming for the access to the outdoors. The Wind Rivers less than 20 miles away and climbing less than 10 miles away,” he said. “But also the appreciation of veterans. I think there is a sense of pride for veterans in Wyoming.
“I want to try to share with other veterans how I was able to move on and then ultimately enjoy the lands we were sworn to defend.”