A cry for help, from half a world away

I’m a product of the 1950s. I was born in the middle of the decade, and grew up in a nation of veterans who had served in three consecutive conflicts – World War I, World War II and the Korean War.

Similar to most kids of the era, I was bombarded with television shows featuring cowboys, Indians and soldiers. My favorite toys were all military related, ranging from toy soldiers to an Army helmet, and a backpack complete with a Tommy Gun and a trusty Colt .45 pistol.

It seemed my relatives were all veterans, including a favorite uncle who was a fighter pilot during WWII and a great uncle who served under General Black Jack Pershing during WWI.

I remember finding his old scrapbook which was filled with photographs taken with an old Brownie camera. There were pictures of battlefields and wrecked biplanes and filthy trenches scattered about with the occasional body or two.

I was fascinated by the scenes, but whenever I asked about the content, he simply said, “Not now, we’ll talk about it some other day.”

Although we regularly watched military-based TV shows such as McHails Navy, Gomer Pyle USMC and a host of old war movies, that day never came.

There was rarely a mention of the years my father spent in the Navy during WWII while serving as a landing craft operator in the Pacific Theatre.

I was young, and due to my interest in the history of war, I failed to recognize the obvious psychological wounds that likely still lingered in their minds.

My father served in the South Pacific, shuttling troops in the Bikini Islands as they assembled for the invasion of Japan. He was there when they received news of the Atomic Bomb. But that’s about all I know of his war record, as he rarely spoke about it.

Although I graduated high school with a draft card in hand, my lottery number never came up. As the Vietnam War was winding down I took the physical for military service, but passed on the opportunity to enlist.

By now, most readers are probably wondering what military service has to do with a column that’s generally devoted to all things outdoors.

The point is, despite my knowledge of the outdoors, I haven’t a clue as to what it’s like to be a camper for life.

Lest we forget, soldiers were the original campers. And yet, on the recent occasion when a young Australian Army veteran visited our community, he did not come to camp.

Most likely he came to the Adirondacks seeking solace, and in his effort to escape the demons of war, he discovered the necessary comfort as he lay down on the soft shoulder of a local mountain and went to sleep.

His name is Captain Paul J. McKay, and reportedly he served several tours of duty in Afghanistan with the Australian Armed Forces. He was a survivor, but he couldn’t escape the obvious wounds that weren’t as apparent to others.

Early in the morning on New Year’s Day, while others were either still celebrating or recovering from the previous evening’s festivities, the young soldier walked off alone in an effort to escape the pain of an old military malady currently known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In previous generations, it was known as Soldier’s Heart, Shell Shock, Survivor’s Syndrome and the Thousand Mile Stare. Although the name of the affliction has been changed over the years, the pain remains the same.

The fact that his tragic death occurred in the lonely woods on a small Adirondack peak located half a world away from his native land must have some meaning. It does not appear that it was just a random, irrational act, but we may never know.

It would have required too much planning and too many logistics. Sadly, McKay is the only one who could explain why he wandered off to a round-topped mountain where he couldn’t see any other humans, and if he could, they were far away, and very small and they just didn’t matter much anymore.

Over the centuries, many societies have provided built-in loopholes to offer individuals a means to escape, or an acceptable way to disassociate from society. The practices are known as trance dancing, vision quests, or even the aboriginal “Walkabout” of Captain McKay’s own homeland.

There is almost always a spiritual purpose in such practices, and the inspiration for such practices are to be found within the pages of various holy books where people like Abraham, Moses, Mohammed and even Jesus fled to the wilderness or climbed the mountaintop in order to fast, pray, or seek divine intervention.

It begs the question if it was really death that he sought, when the young Lieutenant decided to lay down in a slight depression located on a small knob known as The Little Mountain, a short distance from the trail to Scarface.

His body was discovered nearly two weeks later following an extensive search conducted by local forest rangers, state troopers and members of a local volunteer search and rescue team.

McKay was repatriated from Saranac Lake to his native land with a procession that included state police, Department of Environmental Conservation and village police vehicles. Local citizens, including many veterans, lined the streets of the community and saluted as the procession traveled through the village. It was a ceremony befitting a military man, and it came from a community that has a long history of honoring its veterans.

While many continue to ponder the significance of Captain McKay’s final journey into the mountains, it appears there is an obvious and overriding message related to his decision to travel to Saranac Lake. It will remain a mystery if he even knew about it.

For several years now, there has been an ongoing effort within the community to develop and establish a Veteran’s Reintegration Facility in Saranac Lake.

The process has progressed slowly through a series of fits and starts. Despite the immediate lack of progress, the effort continues to sputter along due to the dedication of numerous concerned citizens who have been working with a small but dedicated group of veterans who simply refuse to quit.

It would seem the message recently hand delivered from the far side of the globe, via Afghanistan, Australia and on to the Adirondacks would be enough to reignite interest in the effort.

Saranac Lake is a community with a legacy for healing, and it is surrounded by many miles of Healing Woods.

The critical need for a Veterans Reintegration Center has been highlighted by the tragic death of a handsome, young Australian Army Captain. The incident wasn’t just a combination of coincidences. It offers stark evidence that the time has come to get the Homeward Bound Adirondacks project rolling once again.

The following passage comes from the “Boys Book of Camping and Woodcraft,” published in Jan. 1939:

The Rain Gods Symphony

Sleep in the woods, sleep that house dwelling folk can never know,

Sweet, healing, restorative rest.

The cool, sweet scented night air, close to the damp and smelly earth,

Fragrant with the incense of the things that grow,

The blessing of calm, sweet sleep, the woodlands perfect rest,

Restoring and making us strong for the battles of life ahead.