LANCASTER — A Tennessean veteran of multiple combat tours in Iraq believes the road to healing is the road ahead.
Singing helps, also. So he did some singing and some walking in the Antelope Valley this past week, on his way to an open road, “Walking For Life.”
Army Staff Sgt. Van Booth, recently retired, is setting out to walk across America. He started out in Southern California.
On Saturday he walked from downtown Palmdale, about seven miles, and met a gathering of veterans and veteran friendlies at Bravery Brewery around club call time.
The plan, Booth said, is to walk across America, start in California (with a support team), traverse 13 states total and end up in Myrtle Beach, S.C., in November, around Veterans Day. According to the plan, it will be an approximately 3,200-mile walk.
At 42 years old, Booth looks hale and hearty enough. But he is also a VA-rated disabled veteran carrying a load of trauma from multiple combat deployments, so he is walking for physical health and mental health.
“For me, its a therapeutic walk, but I wanted to do something for Operation Song because I credit them with saving my life,” he said.
Operation Song is a Tennessee-based nonprofit that teams established, and even famous, songwriters with veterans. The group’s objective is to help veterans process their trauma through composing songs about their lives in military service. Booth is walking to raise funds for the group.
He lost a battle buddy before the buddy could return from home from Afghanistan. At a songwriting retreat, Booth wrote, “My Brother, Bo,” to commemorate Channing Bo Hicks, killed Nov. 17, 2012.
One tour in Iraq was with the 10th Mountain Division, at one time the most deployed Army division in the long wars after 9/11. The other Iraq tour was with the 1st Infantry Division, known in Army talk as “The Big Red One.”
Discharged honorably from service in 2016, he served a full 21 years and achieved staff sergeant rank and was awarded the Combat Infantryman’s badge, the mark of the “grunt” rifleman.
He was awarded an array of service and commendation medals and by his own account, a pretty good-size load of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“My first tour in Iraq was in 2004 and it was bad,” Booth said. “A lot of bad things happened.”
Kathi Conroy is a Gold Star Mother who lost her adoptive son, Marques Knight, in Afghanistan, in 2008. She belongs to the support team for Booth’s walking sojourn.
She was there when the walk kicked off at Veterans Park in San Juan Capistrano on Feb. 23.
“He is authentic, humble, relatable,” Conroy said. “He knows how to talk to people about transitioning (from the military) in a way they can understand.”
The history of the Iraq War in 2004 was one of a burgeoning insurgency, in Baghdad and cities that were in the so-called Sunni Triangle. Anbar Province, west of Baghdad, was home to Fallujah and Ramadi — Antelope Valley-sized cities that became the heartbeat of groups that would eventually reassemble nearly a decade later as ISIS.
In 2004, Booth served as an “embedded combat advisor” with Command Advisory Group for the recently reconstituted Iraqi Army. It’s not easy or fun being a stranger in a strange land. Later, he was straight up infantry, serving again in Iraq and also in South Korea.
“He was a staff sergeant and he lost soldiers,” Conroy said. “And he hasn’t been out of the Army that long.”
Taking retirement in 2016, he shared some of the contemporary career soldier’s burden.
“I never went to any PTSD counseling while I was in the service, until I took out my retirement papers,” he said. “It can hurt your career. They say it won’t, but your career can get stopped.”
Out the Army, cooped up in his house, he gained weight and maintained a reclusive lifestyle. That continued until he found his way to a VA Vet Center. Vet Centers are VA, but they concentrate on combat veterans, with counseling from other combat vets. Then, he found Operation Song and considered it a healing experience.
One of the things that distinguishes Operation Song is that the group makes a quality recording of the veteran’s composition.
Moving through the Antelope Valley, Booth got to take in Vazquez Rocks, Blackbird Air Park and R. Lee Ermey Avenue and he linked up with Michael Leahy and Marine veteran Hiram Murray, buddies from a veteran-produced movie, “Tango Down.”
His goal and passion, he said, is to raise awareness with veterans, “their families and any who will listen about programs available to assist veterans struggling with PTSD, like myself.”
The road leads to central California, on to Nevada and more way points on a journey to re-discover himself.
Dennis Anderson is a licensed clinical social worker at High Desert Medical Group. As editor of the Valley Press he embedded with National Guard troops from Lancaster and deployed to Iraq in 2003 and 2004. He works on community outreach and mental health issues for veterans of military service.