Former Sgt. Nick Watson has a history of huge accomplishments. For five years, he served in one of the most elite U.S. military units, the 75th Ranger Regiment. He’s climbed thousands of mountains across the country, including Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America. In 2014, he was even named National Geographic Adventurer of the Year.
But according to Watson, none of his past feats compare to the work he’s doing now—as executive director and co-founder (along with fellow veteran Stacy Bare) of Veterans Expeditions (VetEx), an almost entirely volunteer-run nonprofit dedicated to enhancing the lives of veterans through outdoor expeditions.
Whether veterans are coping with PTSD, physical injuries or even just the difficulties of transitioning to civilian life, Watson understands firsthand how difficult the struggle can be.
From Soldier to Civilian
“When I was 18 years old, all I wanted to be was an Army Ranger,” explains Watson, now 44. “That was literally as far as I saw my future.” He joined the Army just a few months after high school graduation and says he “grew up in Ranger Battalion.” Whether jumping out of airplanes or deploying halfway around the world, Watson lived and breathed being an Army Ranger.
But eventually, after enduring over 10 deployments in a five-year span, the mental and physical demands of service took their toll and Watson left the military life.
“That transition [to civilian life] is pretty major,” he explains. “When I decided to get out I was a bit lost. I didn’t really know what direction to turn.”
For Colorado resident Watson, the outdoors provided just the therapy and direction he needed. It saved him in many ways, and he says he hopes that it can do the same for others.
Inspiring Vets to Achieve the Impossible
Ever since its first expedition on the ninth anniversary of 9/11, when eight veterans scaled Longs Peak in Colorado, VetEx has been providing the opportunity for vets to tackle incredible physical challenges while rebuilding their confidence and finding a new community along the way. Seven years later, the organization has lead over 200 expeditions, ranging from fly-fishing in Alaska to mountain biking in Colorado and helped over 2,500 veterans, including Jimmy Ford, who lost his leg in an IED attack in Iraq. With VetEx’s help, Ford is currently hiking the Pacific Coast Trail, a 2,659-mile trail stretching from California to Canada. His goal is to complete the entire trail—a feat Watson believes has never been accomplished by an amputee.
“He doesn’t see [his leg] as a disability,” Watson says. “I think he did for a while. But he doesn’t now. I have seen this in a lot of men and women that come out with us. You see the lightbulb go on. And that lightbulb is confidence coming back into their life.”
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