Philip Parsons was late. By the time he arrived for the first day of the Trail Camp for Veterans and Gold Star Families in the Blue Ridge mountains of eastern Virginia, the other participants already were on a run.

Yet one of the camp’s mentors, Rob Van Houten, was waiting for him. Parsons quickly got ready and they headed out to catch up.

“One of the first things he told me, ‘You know, you’ve got a family here and I’m here for you, whatever you need,’ ” Parsons says. “That was a shock. We were already running up a mountain, but it definitely took my breath away. It was kind of one of those interesting things like, ‘How’d you know I was here looking for that?’ ”

Parsons, 38, started running in 2006 when he was still in the Army. He’d come home from a long tour in Iraq and felt lost and angry. He battled depression. He attempted suicide.

“I felt pretty prepared for the war and trained for the war,” says Parsons, a staff sergeant who served much of his 13-plus-year stint with the 101st Airborne. “I was an infantry guy, so we were the guys who went door to door, hard, tough guys. But I didn’t know a thing about dealing with the stuff when we came home.”

A scene from the night run on the first day of camp to help kick off the three-day gathering. Photo by John Marcello.

Long-distance trail running helped him cope. When he ran, his mind cleared and his anger melted. After leaving the Army in 2010, he went to college, earned undergraduate and graduate degrees and became a licensed therapist. Parsons, who lives outside Morgantown, Kentucky, specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder and veteran’s issues.

“Running was the vehicle that allowed my mind to calm down just enough to where I could compartmentalize things and focus on what I needed to do,” he says.

Still, Parsons never had been able to replicate what he felt in the Army, a shared mission and camaraderie. This year, his goal had been to connect more with others, especially through running. At the camp, he felt that bond with fellow veterans.

“It fits right in with what I’ve been trying to accomplish in making friends and connections,” he says. “And, getting help to train for the next 100 (miler),” he adds, laughing.

Band of Runners

This was the sixth annual trail running camp for veterans and Gold Star families, but the first put on by a non-profit called Band of Runners made up of ultrarunners, race directors and coaches. Team RWB (Team Red White and Blue) had put on the previous five camps in Texas, with many of the people in Band of Runners acting as organizers and coaches.

Longtime trail runner Liza Howard of San Antonio, Texas, had been the trail running liaison for Team RWB, and directed this first Band of Runners camp, held over Veterans Day weekend in November. She’s one of five leading the organization, along with her husband, Eliot, Joe Prusaitis of Texas and Alison and Jason Bryant of North Carolina.

Band of Runners camp organizer Liza Howard (in plastic bag) speaking with a group of participants at the camp. Photo by John Marcello

The goal is to help active military, veterans and members of Gold Star families (those who have lost loved ones)—plus non-military participants—get together in the outdoors to address problems in their lives. Novices are introduced to trail running and long-timers can sharpen their skills.

“A lot of folks are dealing with PTSD or substance-abuse issues or feeling just isolated, so the idea is give them trail running,” Howard said. “Give them being in nature, the physical activity, the community to make their lives better.”

This year, Band of Runners’ camp hosted 20 participants, a much smaller group than years past. Under Team RWB, 50 to 75 were common. But Howard and her group are just getting started and plan to grow. Next year the group hopes to put on two camps. One, such as this year’s, may be on the West Coast (near a city with a large military population), with another on the East Coast that would include high school-aged children of Gold Star families.

Contributions from the trail running community and the donation of the mountain camp venue enabled Band of Runners to give scholarships to the veterans and Gold Star families. The mentors—including well-known ultrarunners such as Dave Mackey—volunteered their time.

Read More: Dave Mackey is on the Move Again

Howard enjoys recruiting the volunteers and seeing the impact the camps have on participants. The mentors also get a lot out of it.

“Most people feel their running’s a pretty selfish activity, and they’re asking a lot of other people when they’re running, doing a lot of their training, so it’s a really concrete way to be of use to other people with your running, and specifically with this population,” says Howard, the daughter of a retired Army general. “People are excited to be a part of it.”

Over the course of three days, participants went on runs and learned from experts about the technical aspects of trail running, how to do hills and incorporate speed into workouts. They also were taught aspects of first aid, stretching and injury prevention and received gait analysis and form coaching.

On the first night, everyone—participants and mentors—had a night run.

“It’s a good ice breaker,” Howard says. “We throw them out in the dark and have some fun.”

It’s that interaction that often is what participants say is the most important thing they get from the camp, she says. Once introduced to trail running and the mentors, they feel connected.

“The trail running community … it’s such a welcoming kind of all-embracing community,” she says. “Kind of a big circus tent, a place for everybody. A lot of people feel like it’s this easy family to fit into.”

Running for Therapy

Michael Beaudet, 46, spent more than 22 years in the Air Force, retiring as a major. He now lives in Columbia, South Carolina. He got so much out of last year’s camp in Texas that he was excited to get a spot in this year’s too. Just being with other veterans in a cabin and swapping stories made this camp special and helped filled the void he felt when he left the Air Force.

When he retired, his marriage of 20 years dissolved, in part because of the stresses and time apart. Then, a loved one attempted suicide. He craved being part of a community, and he now feels welcomed by those in trail running. He looks forward to joining campers at future runs. He says others were looking for the same thing

Air Force veteran Michael Beaudet (left), a participant in the Band of Runners camp.

“Although other people at the trail camp maybe hadn’t dealt with (the same things), there were quite a few that had attempted suicide or were dealing with depression and were at the camp to help themselves to deal with that better,” he says.

The mentors, too, were a big part of the process. Acclaimed ultrarunning champ Mackey, who in 2016 had his lower left leg amputated because of complications from a major injury, was inspiring, Beaudet says.

“Some of the stories they told were almost some of the most emotional ones,” Beaudet says. “We had Dave Mackey there, coming back after his leg was removed and all he had to deal with, and it’s no different than a military member losing a leg.”

Dustin Canestorp doesn’t necessarily like running, but he likes what he gets from it.  After retiring as a major after 20 years in the Marine Corps in 2014, Canestorp, 45, started doing long runs as therapy. He has PTSD and survivor’s guilt. Counseling and running have helped.

“I got tired of the status quo, because I wanted to get better,” says Canestorp, who lives in New Bern, North Carolina, of counseling. “Not just for my sake, but for my wife and my four school-age children and to be a productive member of our family unit.”

Running is his form of meditation. He says he’s “able to find myself and lose myself.”

“It’s therapeutic in some way,” he says. “I like to say it helps me battle my demons.”

Plus, during his last tour in Iraq, he contracted a disease in which his body attacks itself. If he doesn’t move, his bones could fuse together.

Marine veteran Dustin Canestorp (right in blue) with Stefan Grater. Photo by Dustin Canestorp.

Just before this year’s camp, he dropped out of a 100-mile race in Alabama because of an injury. He’d never DNF’d and was beating himself up about it. Then camp mentors told him it was no big deal. In ultra running, things happen.

“It really put it into perspective for me,” he says. “That you’re pretty stupid if you think you’ll never DNF or never get hurt.”

He also felt something profound. While listening to mentors talk about the joy they find in trail running, it made him feel that what he and his friends had done in Iraq was worthwhile.

“They were like, ‘We really appreciate your service to the country and your sacrifice,’ ” Canestorp says. “And I was like, ‘I appreciate what you do, because you really go out and celebrate what it is to be an American.’ They exercise their freedom and enjoy life. They seem so full of life, and it makes me feel like my multiple combat tours are not in vain, so to speak.

“A reminder that there’s people out there that appreciate their freedom, and by my losing friends, they remember them in a very honorable way by living their lives to the fullest. … This was a nice, positive outlet.”

Former Army staff sergeant Philip Parsons (left) learns how to use a foam roller from Mike Ehredt. Michael Beaudet photo.