She did not scale one of the world’s tallest mountains or reach one of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, but Amy Hess of Aledo, Illinois, celebrated a feat last month in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.
At the height of Georgia Pass, just shy of 12,000 feet, the U.S. Army and Air Force veteran dropped her 50-pound pack, unzipped a side pocket and pulled out a folded American flag. Although snowfall limited their visibility, Hess’ comrades, also former service members, roared when they saw her unfurl it in the wind.
“Nobody knew I had the flag in my backpack the entire time,” she recalled during an interview in her family’s living room. “I can’t describe the euphoria. I mean, I think I still feel it.”
The moment marked the pinnacle of Hess’ backpacking excursion on the Colorado Trail, organized by No Barriers USA, a nonprofit organization based in Fort Collins, Colorado. The single mother of three joined 11 other disabled veterans, along with four experienced mountaineering guides, on the all-expenses-paid journey.
Hess, who served 17 years in the U.S. Army and five years in the Air Force, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and orthopedic issues. In 2012, she was medically discharged from the military.
Following her retirement in 2012, Hess launched her own nonprofit organization called Adonai Community Support Services, which provides assistance to veterans in her community. Adonai means Lord in Hebrew.
Hess' job led to her involvement with No Barriers Warriors, a program through No Barriers USA, designed specifically for military veterans with physical and mental health issues.
Aledo resident Bill Stropes, the business unit manager for Gold Star FS, an agriculture cooperative in Cambridge, Illinois, contacted Hess in early 2017 about No Barriers Warriors. CoBank, Gold Star’s financial services provider based in St. Louis, partnered with No Barriers USA in hopes of sending disabled veterans from rural communities on these outdoor expeditions.
On behalf of CoBank, Stropes asked Hess if she knew any qualified candidates and she pointed to herself.
“I knew she served overseas, but I didn’t know she qualified for the program,” said Stropes, who commended Hess’ commitment to helping other veterans in the area. “She couldn’t have been a better candidate for us to find.”
A couple of months passed before Hess, who was deployed in 2002 to Saudi Arabia, applied for a spot.
“I was not in the best shape, and I knew it was going to take some time to prepare for it,” she said. “I just decided that I was ready to make some changes.”
Hess received word in mid-July that she made the cut for an eight-day trip sponsored by Rise Broadband, a Colorado-based internet service provider.
And that is when she “turned up the heat” with her training.
Hess took a sabbatical from work and began walking several days a week. She hiked with a weighted backpack on rural Mercer County roads and at Black Hawk State Historic Site in Rock Island. Before long, Hess, who enjoyed hiking and camping prior to this, carried 40 pounds on 40-plus miles a week.
She also incorporated yoga into her training, which provided the ultimate relief for her sore muscles and stiff joints.
The long walks became therapeutic.
“To put it mildly, I cleaned my mental house — room by room and floor by floor — for miles and miles and miles,” she said. “And then to go the mountain and summit, that was just the best restoration I could’ve asked for.”
The crew of veterans and guides spent five days in the Colorado backcountry.
Hess camped with two other female veterans in a two-person tent. The crew filtered water from streams, cooked for each other and practiced yoga under yellowing aspen trees. They spotted moose and signs of bear, bobcat and elk, keeping them alert and cautious on the trail. They also battled extreme weather, including cold temperatures, strong winds, heavy rain, snow and graupel, a frozen precipitation sometimes referred to as snow pellets. The packing snow allowed them to break into at least one snowball fight during the trek, which totaled about 30 miles.
While there were opportunities for conflicts to arise, Hess and the others, whose backgrounds and disabilities vary, figured out how to work together on and off the trail.
“There was something certainly about nature that brought us together,” Hess said, noting she felt prepared for the physical challenges. “My biggest concern was the altitude, but I think having trained so hard for eight weeks, my lungs were strong.”
After conquering their adventure in the wilderness, the group returned to Denver to complete a service project with the Anchor Center for Blind Children at Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum.
Organizers intend for the outing to challenge and encourage veterans to reevaluate the way they approach adversity in their lives.
“It’s not just another camping or rafting trip,” said John Toth, a veteran of the U.S. Army and director of No Barriers Warriors. “We want them to remember that what’s within them is stronger than what’s in their way.”
Back home, as Hess scrolled through photos from her eight-day getaway, she called the experience “monumental” for her life. She hopes her memories inspire other veterans to pursue similar opportunities.
“I made a pledge on that mountain I would do an adventure every year,” she said.
Hess does not yet know where her travels will take her next, but no matter where she ends up, her flag will go with her.