Hope Where There Was None
By Brian Smith
The thought of being alone in the wilderness among a group of men terrified Michelle.
She was homeless and hopeless, on the edge of suicide.
Her friend knew she needed an intervention and mentioned No Barriers Warriors. Trauma from her military career had placed a deep distrust of male service members. But she applied anyway.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into, but at that point I knew I needed something to give the desire and will to press forward,” she said. “I think I was more desperate than I was terrified. It was do this or die.”
With no mountaineering experience, the 13-year Navy cryptologist started running and exercising. But the tough work came after she was accepted and flew to train with the team.
While she wore a smile, it was a mask — “just know that the more I smile, the more terrified I am,” she said to a trip leader. But eventually the walls started coming down.
“Getting to interact with them gave me peace of mind,” she said. “It helped me to see that I didn’t view all male service members as the enemy at that point. My mindset, before that, anytime I interacted with the opposite sex was, ‘What’s their motive?’”
Michelle gelled with the team and made it to the summit of Mount Ajax on a training hike to prepare for Mt. Mariposa in Peru. On the descent from Ajax, she had a moment she’d never forget:
“I’m kind of clumsy, so I slipped and fell a little ways. Rather than trying to continue to hike down I was just going to scoot down the rest of the way. Zach came over, extended his arm and said, ‘Grab my arm and I’ll block your feet the rest of the way down.’ Without hesitation, I grabbed his arm and that’s how we got back down. That was a bonding moment for both of us because part of his trauma was that he lost his troops when he was overseas. He felt, I don’t know if it’s called survivor’s guilt, but responsible because it was his team members and he didn’t want to have anyone lean on him or depend on him.”
At the end of the expedition, as they were presenting each other with their No Barriers flags, Zach came up to her with tears in his eyes and said, “You will never know how much it meant to me for you to trust me and take my arm without hesitation and allow me to help you down the mountain.”
Equally, Michelle took heart that she was able to trust a male veteran.
Returning home, she said she felt that she could do anything — “It felt like a different world.”
She had a certain focus and looked for somewhere to apply it. Naturally, her passion for service re-ignited and she began to volunteer for the Schell-Sweet Community Resource Center and the Veteran’s Reintegration Center of Jacksonville.
Among other endeavors, she helped teach older veterans computer literacy skills and hosted workshops to make seniors aware of PTSD and how it relates to mental wellness. She also started an informal support group at the Veteran’s Center, where she became a board member.
Based on her work, the Veteran’s Center asked if she would spearhead a project to get a homeless female veterans’ shelter off the ground using a property that had been donated to the organization. As Michelle was homeless around the time she applied to be on the No Barriers trip, the project is something “very near and dear to my heart.”
No Barriers Warriors helped her realize that service to others is her passion.
“The way that people reached out to me when I was at my lowest point then, I must give back, inspire and give hope to people that felt as hopeless as I did,” she said. “Just to be able to bring a gleam back to someone’s eye, that hope where there was none, is what drives me.”