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Air Guard war vets go Outward Bound

Staff Sgt. Lindsay Howard leads a group negotiating over a relatively small obstacles in the "Wonderland of Rocks" in Joshua Tree National Park during a wilderness-based course run by the non-profit educational organization Outward Bound. US Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Robert Galusha

Staff Sgt. Lindsay Howard leads a group negotiating over a relatively small obstacles in the "Wonderland of Rocks" in Joshua Tree National Park during a wilderness-based course run by the non-profit educational organization Outward Bound. US Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Robert Galusha

Master Sgt. Greg Blackstock and other Air National Guard vets enjoy the breathtaking views at Joshua Tree National Park during a wilderness-based course run by the non-profit educational organization Outward Bound. (US Air Force photo by Capt. Kristen Hoeckel)

Master Sgt. Greg Blackstock and other Air National Guard vets enjoy the breathtaking views at Joshua Tree National Park during a wilderness-based course run by the non-profit educational organization Outward Bound. (US Air Force photo by Capt. Kristen Hoeckel)

BALTIIMORE -- Imagine voluntarily waking up at 4 a.m. in 18-degree weather and six inches of snow to hike through the desert with a group of strangers - strangers who would quickly become friends amongst the cacti and boulders.

This was reality for nine intrepid members of the Maryland Air National Guard who in March took their first cold steps on an incredible journey. It was all part of a wilderness-based course run by the non-profit educational organization Outward Bound. As part of its Military Family Outdoor Initiative Project, the Sierra Club sponsors Outward Bound wilderness adventures free of charge to veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.

This particular backpacking and rock climbing trip took place in the wilds of Joshua Tree National Park, located deep in the desert 140 miles east of Los Angeles. The course was designed to be both physically and mentally challenging. According to the Sierra Club website, "emphasis is placed on taking responsibility for one's own life sticking with difficult tasks through completion, rediscovering a sense of pride and accomplishment, and enjoying the camaraderie of a shared challenging experience."

Participants included Capts. Kristen Hoeckel and Terri Zielinski, Senior Master Sgt. David Abildgaard, Master Sgt. Gregory Blackstock, Tech. Sgts. Robert Galusha and Nathan Sullivan, and Staff Sgts. Jose Gonzalez and Lindsay Howard, all members of the Maryland Air Guard's 175th Wing, and Senior Airman Jennifer Kasper, who works at the National Guard Bureau in Virginia. The course was led by Outward Bound instructors Becca Peixotto and Chris Rogers, both of whom had military backgrounds.

During the course, the Airmen faced a number of challenges, from waking up outdoors in frost-covered sleeping bags to rappelling down a 125-foot cliff and top-rope climbing a 100-foot rock face to night-navigating over, under, and through the park's "Wonderland of Rocks." The Airmen found that what was a challenge for some came easily to others, and they learned to draw strength from each other.

Sergeant Galusha, a member of Maryland's 175th Civil Engineer Squadron who was affectionately dubbed "Agile Kitty" by his peers, was elated at being able to maintain the pace set by the younger troops.

"I enjoyed this adventure and [was] relieved to know I could keep up with everyone and not too old to complete the challenge," he said. "I am happy that I was able to experience the beauty of the wilderness with this group and feel like we will always have a special friendship because of it."

For Senior Airman Kasper, a member of the Ohio Air National Guard currently detailed to the NGB, the shared experience strengthened her survival skills and sense of friendship.

"Not only did I learn how to live in the wilderness for seven days with the aid of our instructors, but I learned how nine people who didn't really know each other too well could work together, be one's strength and encouragement, and successfully complete the tasks given each day," she said. "We hiked through canyons, climbed the face of rocks, and rappelled down cliffs. I learned so much about myself and new-found friends that I will never be the same, nor will I ever forget them."

For other participants, the value of the experience was more spiritual. Sergeant Blackstock, a member of the Maryland Air Guard's 135th Maintenance Squadron, found that the experience reinforced his faith in the younger generation.

"I was once again happily surprised to see members of the Guard look at obstacles or their inner insurmountable barriers and then to take that extra step, step over, through or just to get back up and overcome," he said. "I really do love being there for those moments."

While not hard at work keeping the team entertained with his comical persona and fear of spiders, Sergeant Sullivan took time to slow down and reflect on life's responsibilities.

"It's so quiet out there and you get time to think without all the background noise, or hustle and bustle of life," he said.

Returning home was just another step in the journey. The nine "intrepid Airmen" continue to swap photos and share reflections of the expedition that will hopefully make them better friends and better people.

"It was nice to get to know the people I work alongside," said Captain Hoeckel, a pilot assigned to the 135th Airlift Squadron who guides white water rafting expeditions in her civilian job and was by far the most experienced outdoors man of the group. "To me, the most rewarding part was listening to each other's stories and experiences."

Sergeant Gonzalez, a member of the 175th Maintenance Squadron, echoed the sentiment.

"I really bonded with people from other sections that I haven't had the chance to work with before and made some lasting friendships. It was the chance of a lifetime!"

For more information on the Outward Bound veterans' programs sponsored by the Sierra Club, visit the Outward Bound website at http://www.outwardbound.org/index.cfm/do/cp.veterans.