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Minnesota veterans recondition in Alaska wilderness

Baihly Warfield
Updated: November 03, 2020 07:17 PM

Alaska is featured on many bucket lists. A group of Minnesota veterans got to experience the state with some of the people who know it best. 

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The 23rd Veteran Recon group traveled to Homer, Alaska to stay on the Kilcher homestead. The Kilchers are featured on the Discovery Channel show "The Last Frontier." 

"The reason this veterans trip happened is because I've been dreaming it into existence since about 1968," Atz Kilcher said. Wouldn't it be wonderful if someday I could be with a group of veterans on that beautiful, healing piece of land?"

He and his sister Catkin hosted the group of 10 veterans and one civilian. They are experts on the land, but they also see it through a veteran's eyes. Atz was drafted and served in the Army during the Vietnam War. Catkin spent more than 30 years in the Marine Corps. 

"What's important .. I think was connecting with the Alaska wilderness and the pioneer way of life and being able to get that healing through nature," Catkin Kilcher Burton said. 

The Kilchers tapped right into one of the key ingredients in the 23V Recon program. The veterans spend the first week out of state and out of their comfort zone. 

"For them to travel to a different part of the country that they have never been on, they're sleeping under the stars, they're relying on each other for food, for their shelter, for protection from animals and weather, they're able to build that tight comraderie like we had in the military," Mike Waldron, founder of the Duluth-based 23rd Veteran nonprofit, said. 

In the past, they've traveled to an outdoor school in North Carolina. After that week in the wilderness, the group commits to 13 weeks of working out together three times a week, followed by a positive psychology session. Gratitude is the overarching theme to everything 23rd Veteran does. 

Vera Wayne, a Navy and Air Force veteran, said she's been on a soul searching journey all year. It brought her on a solo five-day trip to Yellowstone. 

"And so going out into the Alaska wilderness actually kind of propelled me even further into that journey," she said, "because being able to bond with the other guys that were on this trip allowed me to experience something a little bit different." 

As the group shares, they make discoveries. That's what Ben Hatton found. 

"I sort of realized that there's a bunch of stuff that I should probably, you know, be a little bit honest with myself about," Hatton said. 

He served in the Minnesota National Guard for about 18 years, including a deployment to Iraq. He said it helps to have a community and a mentor. And Atz Kilcher can see himself in that role. 

"What I envision doing for the rest of my life is some kind of veterans programs in some capacity or another where I'm sharing my background, my experiences, my successes, my failures and hopefully passing on to other veterans my recipe," Kilcher said. 

Hatton said his goal for the program is to become more physically fit. But he's also learning to cope with boredom and be accountable to his peers. 

"You get what you pay for, right? So if you want to get better, you've got to put some work in," Hatton said. 

And although they're now thousands of miles from Alaska, the land has made a permanent impression. 

"Veterans are veterans. Veterans have no borders," Catkin said. 

The entire 14-week 23V Recon program is free for veterans and military who experienced a traumatic event during their time in the service. 

23rd Veteran is looking for three civilians to join this group starting Monday, Nov. 9, for the last nine weeks of the program. If you are interested, you can visit 23rdveteran.org or email info@23rdveteran.org.

Credits

Baihly Warfield

Copyright 2020 WDIO-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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