Thursday, October 17, 2019
Sebastian Junger Praises Higher Ground’s Bond Forging
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Sebastian Junger said being embedded with wildland firefighters fighting a fire north of Boise introduced him to the experience of being part of something, the feeling that “this is how life is supposed to feel.”
 
Thursday, July 4, 2019
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

In 2007 journalist Sebastian Junger embedded himself with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team of the U.S. Army assigned to defend the deadliest outpost in Afghanistan.

He wanted to learn what war feels like and what it does to soldiers.

There was no communication with the outside world, no TV, no electricity and it was hot as hell during the soldiers’ 14-month assignment. And everyone was almost killed, including Junger who felt a bullet fly by inches away from his forehead.

 
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Ret. Col. Rich Cardillo stands at attention during the singing of the National Anthem.
 

Yet, when the soldiers returned home, one told Junger: “It’s so strange—most of us don’t want to go back home. We want to go back to Restrepo.”

“What was going on?” Junger asked supporters of Higher Ground eating strawberry shortcake under a tent twice the size of the Restrepo outpost.

“Out there they had the experience of being in a group of people that they completely depended on. And maybe the most important people can do is feel necessary to a group of people,” Junger said. “That sense of purpose is so powerful that they would rather go back to these circumstances then come home.”

Junger spoke at Higher Ground’s annual fundraiser--A Hero’s Journey--held under the tall trees on Tom and Elizabeth Tierney’s River Grove Farm just north of Hailey.

 
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No one was worried about the comfort of the soldiers, said Lars Kessler, who has been restoring this 1942 weapons carrier. “Even the backpacks did not have comfortable straps, nor were they easy to get out of if the guys were getting shot at.”
 

His 2010 documentary film “Restrepo,” made with the late British photojournalist Tim Hetherington, won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. And it was nominated for the 2010 Academy Award for Best Documentary, losing to “Inside Job.”

Higher Ground, which provides therapeutic recreation for wounded warriors, as well as civilians dealing with disabilities, has tapped into one of the keys to help vets transition back into civilian life, he said.

“We need to create groups in society that create that feeling of belonging and Higher Ground has figured that out.”

We live in a society that enjoys such abundance that most people don’t have to worry where their next meal is coming from, he explained. And they don’t have to ask the neighbors’ help to repair a roof leak—they just pay someone to fix it.

 
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Chris Boskin, who led the charge to provide services for veterans, was involved in publishing such magazines as “Bon Appetit” and “Esquire” before co-founding CALmatters, a nonpartisan journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s government works and why it matters.
 

The downside of that is that people are less likely to feel needed.

“One of the soldiers told me something amazing: ‘There are guys who straight-up hate each other but we would die for each other,’ ” Junger recounted.

The miracle is that Higher Ground can create these bonds without people having to go through terrifying circumstances, such as going through cancer or fighting war on mountain top, he added.

The power of a group like Higher Ground to help veterans form necessary bonds once they return from combat was in evidence Tuesday night as one man after another described how he’d found his new tribe during one of Higher Ground’s weeklong camps.

 
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Katie Keller checks out a Keith Urban guitar that was part of the silent auction items.
 

Miami resident Rod Rodriguez, who was flanked by his wife Julie, described how the two had learned to  rely on the team in their raft and work as a group during a rafting trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

“It’s hard for a Marine to admit weakness, and I didn’t realize the way my anger and stuff was impacting my family and others,” he said. “But when there’s the possibility you might get thrown off a boat and drown, it brings you close. Higher Ground really helped us in our relationship. They gave me tools, including meditation, which I now do every day.”

Monty Heath, Higher Ground’s director of military programs, described how working with other vets had helped him with his own PTSD

“It’s money spent well and we’re changing lives. We’re showing vets there is another way, that you don’t have to be hooked on prescription medications the rest of your life,” he said

Then he described how a caring community had provided similar points of connection when his 11-year-old son George landed in intensive care battling a rare form of meningitis and encephalitis.

“This community helped me with personal support, medical support, even casseroles,” he said.

A generous crowd placed some beefy bids on auction items that included a Special Operations Sniper Training package, a lot that included center court tickets at the champion Golden State Warriors game and an opportunity for a scenic flight over California.

The evening marked the 20th anniversary of Higher Ground, which started with three employees.

“One thing became evident quickly—our veterans needed our help,” said Board Chair Jeff Rust. “Twenty years later, we’ve served 1,500 vets and 400 children and adults with disabilities. Now we have 25 employees and offices in New York and L.A. But one thing that has not changed: We still have a waiting list. Our vets need our help—that shows our missions is still critical.”

Among those who saw need early on was Chris Boskin, who was honored Tuesday night as a Higher Ground Hero.

A military brat whose father and uncle served in the Navy, Boskin provided the vision and guidance for the organization long before most recognized the need.

 “She’s a true champion of the mission of Higher Ground,” said Higher Ground’s Executive Director Kate Weihe.

“I just saw a need,” said Boskin.

 

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