Over 14 days in September, I had a truly fantastic opportunity to join thousands of others who have completed the pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Before this, I had no idea what this was or what it was all about; after completing the journey, my life will never be the same.
The Camino de Santiago, also known as the Way of St. James, is a network of pilgrims’ ways. These pilgrimages lead to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain. Tradition holds that the remains of Saint James are buried there. Today, the Camino welcomes pilgrims of all backgrounds from around the world with an established route with full logistical support. The pilgrimage is a 180-mile journey conducted on foot, and nearly 180,000 people completed the pilgrimage last year.
After 20 years in the Army, I’m no stranger to walking for a long time. Just about everyone who has served in the military has experienced the dreaded ruck march. It’s the military’s version of hiking, only without leisurely strolling in the woods and stopping when you want to. It builds strength and character and has many benefits, even if it was only done for training. And if the idea of walking an average of 18 to 20 miles a day is challenging to you…it was! But Warriors on the Way, the organization I made the pilgrimage with, captures the benefits of the ruck march experience while leaving the negatives behind.
Warriors on the Way is a pilgrimage experience designed for combat Veterans by combat Veterans. Capitalizing on the latest research in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and moral injury care, Veterans join in the tradition of pilgrims who have been walking the Camino de Santiago since the 9th century. Led by Father Steven Rindahl, a retired Army Chaplain, the Warriors on the Way pilgrimage was based on his multiple pilgrimages focused on Veteran healing. Father Steve has multiple advanced degrees, including a Doctor of Ministry, during which he learned much about responding to combat trauma. He is a combat Veteran, having served as a Chaplain in Iraq with the 1st Cavalry Division. He was the developer and instructor of the US Army Chaplain’s Course on providing a ministerial response to moral injury. He used all these experiences to develop Warriors on the Way.
PTSD and moral injury are directly linked to an overall reduction in quality of life and an increased rate of suicide among Veterans. Programs like Warriors on the Way and experiences like this pilgrimage for combat Veterans can make a difference in the participants’ lives. It’s not just a long walk-through beautiful terrain. It also reduces PTSD and moral injury symptoms; it can genuinely improve quality of life and help reduce Veteran deaths by suicide.
Beginning in the historic city of Astorga, Spain, my journey with Warriors on the Way took us through Ponferrada, home to one of the largest Templar Castles still standing, through the village of Portomarin, and the gorgeous mountains of Galicia. We used this time to think and plan, to consider and contemplate, and to pray…all while putting one foot in front of the other. Each of us had the opportunity to participate in the ancient ritual of leaving burdens at the foot of the Cruz de Ferro at O Cebreiro. Ultimately, we completed our journey at the amazing Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela.
Words cannot fully express what this pilgrimage meant to me. It was a life-changing event. Due to the physical exhaustion, I could explore thoughts related to trauma that I had not only experienced in the Army but throughout my entire life. I will forever be grateful for this opportunity and thank God for this tremendous blessing.