About five years ago, Karl Monger waited for a combat veteran, Nate, to walk through the doors of an indoor rock-climbing gym. Once Nate did, he went through orientation, then walked over to a climbing wall where Monger and other veterans were. It was his turn to climb, and Monger belayed him. Nate wanted to quit partway up, but his support system of veterans below wouldn’t let him. “We encouraged him he’s got to keep going,” Monger said.
After Nate was lowered to the ground following his climb, he “drops to his knees and covers his face with his hands,” Monger added. “For a half a minute he just sits there. (Then) he looked up at us and he had tears in his eyes. He said, ‘That’s the first time since I left the Army that my mind was clear of all the junk. All I could think about was climbing that wall.’” Then Nate belayed Monger.
About a year after that climb, Monger shared that Nate said to him, "'You remember when I first belyaed you? It was the first time since I left the Army that anybody trusted me.'"
Monger, a retired U.S. Army major and Paid Up for Life American Legion member, has helped over 300 veterans boost their confidence, self-esteem, physical fitness and find purpose again through indoor rock climbing. The program started six years ago after Monger watched a video of veterans rock climbing who said that it helped with post-traumatic stress. Having never rock climbed before, Monger tried it out alongside another veteran in pursuit of looking for a physical activity that he could do with a total hip replacement that is a result of his time in service as an Army Ranger officer. He started climbing and immediately saw a change in his physical and mental health. And he saw climbing’s connection to military service – control danger, trust in somebody else and internal competition.
“The whole environment, it really works,” said Monger, founder and executive director of a veteran nonprofit called GallantFew that the rock-climbing program falls under. GallantFew provides connecting, coaching and counseling to veterans transitioning out of the service. And it focuses on five areas of fitness: physical, emotional, spiritual, professional and social.
About 125 climbers with the GallantFew program were recently surveyed about the benefits it provides. “Eighty percent of them said their lives outsides of the climbing gym had improved as a result of them being involved in the climbing program,” Monger said. “They said they had more friends, they said they were more confident. The whole thing just works. In terms of mental health, physical health, social health, it all kind of comes together in a climbing environment.
“Being able to provide that supportive environment is huge because it allows (veterans) to trust. The connection provides the coaching and camaraderie and supportive assistance that that benefit outside of the climbing gym is real. When you have somebody that believes that other people trust and love them, then they are going to be less likely to think about suicide.”
Monger hosts the rock-climbing sessions weekly on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Movement Grapevine gym in Dallas, adding that the gym has been wonderful to work with when he approached them about bringing in veterans to climb.
Zach Ceballos has been climbing for several years now through Monger’s program for the physical, mental and social aspect. Rock climbing for Ceballos alongside his fellow veterans has provided him camaraderie and “allowed me to find a place where I belong and feel comfortable at, and where I feel safe and secure. Some of the best things I have from this is that whenever we’re on the wall and you’re going through that negative stuff in your life and you’re figuratively hitting that wall, you’re able to hear people who are rooting for you down below you. It’s very tangible, you can apply it to your life. Just because you’re having a hiccup in your life doesn’t mean your life is done.”
The Marine veteran deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 where he lost 17 of his friends, including his roommate and machine gunner. “To this day, I try to live a life that they would expect me to live … make sure that I do good things for people,” said Ceballos, who serves as a veteran support specialist for GallantFew where he provides peer-to-peer coaching. “My purpose is to serve. I served in the Corps, I served my country, I took care of my Marines in front of me and behind me when we were in Afghanistan, and now I am able to translate that to the veteran capacity and to be able to be here for veterans.”
Ceballos said that they will receive texts or phone calls from veterans who climbed that say, ‘”Thank you. I needed that.’ Or ‘Hey, I believe in this program so much that I brought another veteran with me.’ It shows the value of what our work is.”
Veterans who have rock climbed with GallantFew have been triple amputees, have back issues and other physical pains. “But when you get on the wall, it’s like your weightless,” Monger said. “Part of it is the mental, you’re working the puzzle of climbing so you’re not thinking about other things going on physically.”
Rob Bickel, a 2015 West Point Graduate who served with the 82nd Airborne Division, fractured his back in the Army. Isolated at home for most of last year to heal, he “didn’t know what else to do, nor have anywhere to go” until he found Monger’s rock-climbing program two months ago.
“It’s really been wonderful for me,” Bickel said, adding that it’s helped him strengthen his core and back muscles. “GallantFew has provided me an avenue to be physical, competitive and be around other like-minded people. It’s hard to articulate the power behind it. But having something tangible in front of me that I can see and know that I’m improving on … physically for me, I can feel my body getting better and stronger. The synergy of it all has really been life changing for me.”
Isolation is the biggest threat to mental health that Monger sees. The veterans who come through the rock-climbing program “start doing things that rehabilitates their body and that rehabilitates their soul, then they become part of something again. I’ve seen that over and over again with veterans,” he said.
As a witness to the physical and mental benefits of rock climbing, Monger saw The American Legion’s Be the One suicide prevention initiative and wanted to do his part both on the climbing wall and at his post. Monger, a licensed professional counselor associate, is starting to provide monthly leadership classes at his Post 379 in Bedford, Texas.
A session was held on Nov. 7 that focused on Be the One. Fourteen Legion Family members from posts around the area attended the discussion where Monger asked how to Be the One. Responses from Legion Family included: by destigmatizing the need to ask for help, providing the needed resources, sharing stories of people who have died by suicide, listening to veterans when they speak and being sympathetic.
“We have to do Buddy Checks, we have to be communicating and recognize those warning signs,” said Brandon Williams, a member of Post 379 and District 12 service officer. “(Whether or not you served in combat) we all understand what’s at stake … that battle of good versus evil. And for some that takes some level of emotional toll. Most people don’t realize how deep that toll is until years later. When you put all of this stuff in your memory chest, those intrusive thoughts will one day come back. We deny them so much that we don’t realize they are an in issue until oh my gosh, why am I in the hospital having a panic attack? Be the One is so important.”
Chad Page wears his Be the One T-shirt everywhere. “Every time I wear that T-shirt, someone asks me about it,” shared Page, a member of Post 655 in Haltom City, Texas, and the District 12 vice commander. “There is my opportunity to save the next person.”
Post 379 Commander Rich Wiltshire said when he meets young veterans and talks about The American Legion, “I tell them that we understand where you’ve been, we understand where you’re going, and we understand how to get you where you need to be. We’re here for you. We have your back.”
The ability to help a veteran get to where he or she needs and wants to be is the focus of Monger’s counseling to save a life.
Monger gives a self-assessment to the veterans he counsels to help them identify where they are emotionally, physically, spiritually, professionally and socially. If a veteran scores a 7 out of 10 on the question of thoughts of suicide, that tells him there’s a 30% chance they are thinking about suicide. When he asks if they are, “Usually they say, ‘I have some stuff going on.’ Ok tell me about that stuff,” Monger said to the Legion Family members. He also asks veterans, “Are you the person you want to be? If you’re not, what’s the difference between who you are now and the person you want to be? Because now you can start identifying the things that need to happen to become that person. You start them thinking about what that vision for the future is. You start them thinking about how you make that plan to get there.”
Monger said “the big question is how do we end veteran suicide? It’s impossible to end it, in my opinion. Because each one of us has the ultimate choice; any one of us can do it. But what we need to do is we need to stop the next one.”