April 17, 2015
By Mike Liguori

IMG_3326The author, left, at Project Odyssey.

It was suppose to be for work. I was going to spend a week with members of Wounded Warrior Project in upstate New York to take part in one of their leading programs: Project Odyssey. So I ended up on my own odyssey–a train ride up from New York City–to see the program unfold far from hectic city life.

I kept thinking of how I’d fit in since I wasn’t attending as a participant. I was there representing The Mission Continues so I could better understand how we can support the WWP Alums in our programs. But from the program description, I could tell it would benefit an observer too.

The program looked more fun than a standard therapy session. The idea behind Project Odyssey is to get veterans outdoors and connect with one another in a natural and rejuvenating environment. The program challenges veterans to step out of their comfort zone and learn new skills while having fun hiking, kayaking, fishing and more.

I was the first to arrive and waited patiently for the rest of my group filter onto the bus. One by one, they boarded, their eyes open and alert looking and scanning their surroundings, reminiscent of the folks in my Marine unit when we came home from my tours in Iraq. I was scanning everything along with them.

But when we all loaded up and made our way toward the hotel, I started to feel more at ease. There was some conversations about war, and the same old questions veterans always ask each other. What unit were you in? Where were you deployed? But it didn’t matter much. I was with 12 Warriors ready to embark on the long way home.

Project Odyssey is based on Homer’s epic poem recounting the journey home for Odysseus. Upon his return, his wife and children did not recognize him. The toll of a long war and a long redeployment transformed Odysseus into a different person.

My week at Odyssey wasn’t just snowboarding, yoga and ziplining. It was more than that. It became a place where for the first time I shared in a group setting my challenges home from war with a group of people who knew what I was going through. It made feel I belonged because I never had to explain how or why I felt this way. The veterans around me already knew. Odyssey became a safe place to share my new experiences and thoughts. It became a place for me to deal with my struggles, forge new friendships and most importantly feel the camaraderie that I haven’t felt since the Marine Corps. It was one of the best things I’ve done in my life.

A wounded veteran transforms an old uniform into paper.

I remembered what it was like coming home from Iraq in 2005, like I had come to a place that looked like home but felt like a foreign country. I dealt with enduring challenges, constantly waiting for that day where I could feel whole like I did when I was a corporal taking care of junior Marines during supply convoys in Al-Anbar, Iraq. Similar to the travels of Odysseus, the journey home felt like the 10 years away from Troy (although I never got to battle the Cyclops, which would have been awesome) on my journey home from war. My family, my friends and those closest to me saw I wasn’t the same the person.

But when I went to upstate New York surrounded by a group of combat veterans who went through the same experiences I did, I never once felt like a visitor in a foreign land, a tourist in my own backyard. In fact, I never felt so comfortable as a combat veteran. Never once did I shy away from sharing my journey and feelings. In return, I was welcomed and accepted and empowered to own my experiences. Now I better understand how my deployment shaped me as a person. I’m not defined by the war, but it shaped me into the person I am today.

In the military, we do things together. We fight together, we eat together, and we heal together. Most of us are now embarking on our own odyssey, taking those first steps to find out who we are after the service. I still feel that after almost ten years since I returned home from war that I still am discovering who I am today. But I am home now. And ready to continue on my odyssey.

Mike Liguori is the veteran outreach specialist for the Northeast region at The Mission Continues. He is an Iraq war veteran and currently blogs for The Huffington Post.