For many veterans, the camaraderie built in the military is the No. 1 thing missed after transitioning into civilian life. That’s why events like this Sunday’s second annual Veterans Float & Picnic are so important.
“What veterans miss and suffer from … is the lack of camaraderie they had when they were on active duty,” said Fritz Shry, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 4031 in Durango. “Our goal is to bring the veteran community together and do something fun.”
Last year, Mountain Waters Rafting owners Dan Bechtel and James Wilkes, both with families that have military backgrounds, wanted to offer an experience to veterans in the community that would bring them and their families together.
And what better way than on a raft down the Animas River?
“The outdoors, it has that healing touch,” Wilkes said. “And veterans tend to be generally reclusive. So when they are able to do things as a group, they’re more comfortable.”
Indeed, Shry, who joined the U.S. Navy in 1990 and retired in 2014, said the civilian world operates very differently than the military, which stresses high accountability and structure.
“When you’re in the military, someone is looking out for you every day, several times a day,” he said. “No one checks in on you in the civilian world like that.”
After leaving the military, many veterans suffer from this void. To address this, community organizations in recent years have made a concerted effort to hold events like the Veterans Float & Picnic to rebuild that lost camaraderie.
“It’s always a work in progress,” Shry said. “Until a veteran comes to their own personal understanding … then I think that’s where veteran services organizations can really benefit the veterans and bring a sense of purpose back into their lives.”
Demetrius Lewis, chairman of the Durango Elks Lodge Veterans Service Commission, said it’s important for veterans to meet each other and maintain a strong connection.
“Vets want to know if they get in a bind, someone is there to help steer them in the right direction,” he said. “And most just need someone to reach out and talk to.”
The Elks Lodge, for instance, hosts a breakfast the first and third Sunday of every month to benefit veterans, and the VFW holds a social club every Thursday afternoon that speaks to this purpose.
Calls to the American Legion and the Veterans Outreach Center of La Plata County were not immediately returned Tuesday morning.
Sunday’s float down the Animas River is open to all veterans and their families. The ride will start below Santa Rita Park, bypassing the Durango Whitewater Park to make for a more relaxed float. Participants are asked to show up at 11 a.m. at Santa Rita Park. The event and picnic are free and accessible to those with disabilities.
Wilkes said the event in 2018 had a good turnout, but event organizers are hoping for more veterans and their families to attend this year.
“We had a really positive reaction,” he said. “People were out there just enjoying the outdoors with their families and fellow veterans.”
firstname.lastname@example.orgA earlier version of this story erred in saying the float was Saturday. The event is Sunday.