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Backpacking not Ruck marching

Outdoor program creates community for HSU veteran students

Driving back to Humboldt County after the Lightning in a Bottle music festival, Sean Dent found out his roommate kicked him out for no reason. Immediately after hearing the news he got into a car accident. Fresh out of the military and brand new to Humboldt State University, Dent felt lost in 2016. After weighing out his options he went straight to the VETS Office’s outdoor program and went on his first hiking trip with other veterans. The trip changed his life forever.

“I lived in my car a few months while looking for a place. It wasn’t until I found a community here that helped my mindset. That community was other vets.”

Sean Dent

“It was my first trip and my favorite trip,” Dent said. “I was foreign to California and recently out of the Army. The hike was beautiful. A mentor brought me in and gave me strength. He physically reached out because it helped him in the past.”

Dent is an environmental science and management major with an emphasis in ecological restoration. Originally from Virginia, Dent enlisted in the Army “out of necessity” because that was his best option. While enlisted in the military from 2012-2015, Dent was stationed in Louisiana until he was deployed to Afghanistan.

“It was a hard transition into college,” Dent said. “I lived in my car a few months while looking for a place. It wasn’t until I found a community here that helped my mindset. That community was other vets.”

IMG_9699.jpg The Veteran’s Office gives out free pint glasses for veterans. | Photo by T.William Wallin

Environmental resource engineer Paulo Martin had a similar experience when first enrolling at HSU. Martin was born in the Philippines and was stationed in South Korea from 2009-2013. He now handles the VETS Office’s social media and promotes the positive events they’e doing, such as the outdoor program. Martin said the VETS Office takes care of soldiers transitioning into students but would like to see more vets coming in.

“It’s weird coming from a soldier training for war or getting gassed everyday,” Martin said. “We are told what to think everyday and as a student it isn’t like that, we are told to think for ourselves. The outdoor program helps with that transition.”

Both Dent and Martin didn’t think they would like backpacking or hiking because of all the ruck marching they had to do in the military. But as civilians Martin said his favorite trip is the hiking trip. Through the outdoor program HSU veterans take multi day trips to places like the Trinity Alps or for the upcoming spring break, Mt. Bachelor, for snowboarding. After a three day hike they will end the trip with white water rafting.

“At first if you tell someone in the army you’re going hiking they roll their eyes,” Martin said. “But being able to hike without a weapon and a 50 lbs. bag has made me love hiking.”

Coming from a military background Martin is used to being with a squad and the outdoor program creates a similar community for him. Martin said vets have more pitfalls and rough personalities, having a platform to go out in nature that is different than the toxic state of the army is refreshing.

“I don’t like to talk to regular citizens about my military experience,” Martin said. “But with other vets we’re on the same plane and can relate with one another. Some people freak out about my stories.”

IMG_9700.jpg Kim Hall founded the HSU’s veteran’s resource center over 30 years ago and started the outdoor program in 2009 as a therapeutic program for soldiers transitioning into students. | Photo by T.William Wallin

Veteran program administrator Kim Hall created the outdoor program in 2009 through Outward Bound. The program was created as a wilderness therapy to support veterans transitioning as HSU students. Hall also established the HSU VETS in 1990, the veterans resource center on campus. It was one of the first in the state as well as being one of the largest today, serving around 500 military affiliated students.

“At the time there was a lot of vets coming in trying to navigate the CSU system,” Hall said. “I was working in administration and saw the need for more. I liked working with them better than traditional students. What keeps me coming back to campus are the vet students.”

Dent said the outdoor program has brought a lot vets who are new to the area together and life long friendships have bonded. Dent said he has met his best friends in the outdoor program, like Paulo Martin.

“I can’t even explain what the outdoor program has done for me,” Dent said. “We’re always looking for a challenge. Going through a challenge together like hiking or snowboarding builds camaraderie deeper than normal friendships because we’re going through the same things. I now have life long friends.”

Next Veterans meeting is at E&O bowling in Blue Lake on March 8 at 7:30 p.m.

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