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Project goes into the woods with 'off the grid' veterans

A few years ago a team of journalists from Syracuse University traveled to rural Washington state to tell the stories of hundreds of veterans living there, some off-the-grid, away from the country for which they fought.


The project includes the story of Chad Olsen, a Marine who killed his wife and himself in 2009, and the stories of those who knew him. It features the stories of Ryn Rollins and Adam Howerton, who (at the time) were 18 and enlisting in the Army. The project also shows how one Marine veteran who struggles with post-traumatic stress and returning to everyday life after three tours in Iraq.

The project also follows "trip-wire veterans," a small group of vets who escaped their lives into the wilds of American back country because they were unable to face their war memories and were provided little help when they returned. The term "trip-wire" comes from the Vietnam War, where the Viet Cong would booby trap trails used by U.S. servicemen to injure and maim troops outside their bases.

The term was first coined in the early 1980's, when around 85 people were documented living in the Washington wilds. It was not known then how many were out there. One former trip-wire vet was Mike McWatters. He lived in New York's Adirondack Mountains for two years after seeing heavy combat in Vietnam. In 1983, he started work to reach out to these veterans to encourage them to seek treatment.

"I know one vet who went into the woods naked," McWatters said. "He came out in full leather clothing, having gained 40 pounds, carrying weapons he'd made."

Photo by Juliette Lynch

When these veterans were first discovered, the media often inaccurately portrayed them as criminals and drunks or worse. In June, 1988, Dan Rather and CBS News interviewed six "Vietnam veterans" who admitted to killing civilians or seeing friends killed in action, and had since become homeless, suicidal drug users after the war. Later investigations showed none of it was true.

The reality is not so black and white. The project hit important topics beyond PTSD - women, race (specifically Native Americans) and the wives and children veterans leave behind, all from the rural town of Republic, Washington.

 This team did more than just tell tales of the people living there. They provided thoroughly researched background information on veteran suicide, the steps to getting a VA disability claim, and an infographic on U.S. wars from 1900 (current as of 2010) and those who fought them.

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