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Rob Vessels was never going to carry a gun for hire again.
He grew up in the “G.I. Joe Generation,” on John Wayne movies and playing army in the backyard. He always wanted to be a soldier, so he became one as soon as he could—two weeks after graduating from high school in 2004.
But five years in the U.S. Army changed all that. After moving back to Indiana with his parents, he felt lost.
“In those five years, I pretty much experienced a lifetime,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I could connect with anyone or anything back home.”
So, he grabbed a tent, a backpack and his dog, Prudence, and walked off into the wilderness.
“I just walked until I didn’t want to walk anymore,” he said. “It really helped me process things in my head.”
Now, as a leader of the Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors program, Vessels and his team of more than 300 volunteers across the country are helping other veterans heal in the same way.
For many retired or separated service members, the fighting doesn’t end when they leave active duty. Adjusting to a new life outside the military can be a battle, too.
A 2011 Pew Research Center study reported that more than a quarter of veterans said their transition from military to civilian life was difficult—a proportion that climbs to 44 percent among veterans who served after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The adjustment is even harder, the study showed, for veterans who experienced emotional or physical trauma while serving, which affects roughly a third of all veterans.
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