No barriers: Wilderness trek a life-changing experience for Carmel veteran

  • No Barriers Warriors Gila Wilderness Team
    Thirteen veterans and their guides and photographers hiked across the Gila Wilderness from June 11 to 17. (Submitted photo)
  • Eric Donoho
    Eric Donoho during his journey with No Barriers Warriors. (Submitted photo)
  • CIC-COVER-0712-Eric Donoho 4
    Eric Donoho served in Iraq from 2004 to 2009. (Submitted photo)

By Ann Marie Shambaugh

Eric Donoho’s first experience in a desert didn’t go so well.

An Army infantryman, Donoho spent five years serving in Iraq, where he was hit by two IEDs and an explosively formed penetrator, leaving him with a traumatic brain injury, migraines and depression. This all after he had to temporarily leave the war zone soon after he arrived to bury his stillborn son.

So when he heard that a planned trip to scale mountains in Wyoming with several other disabled veterans was switched to a desert hike through the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico, he had second thoughts. But it turned out to be just what he needed.

“A spur-of-the-moment change in this trip ended up being really influential and spiritual for the majority of us,” Donoho said. “It showed us where we were and where we should be.”

Donoho, a Carmel resident, completed the trip June 11 to 17 through No Barriers Warriors, an organization that supports veterans with disabilities. It’s part of No Barriers USA, a nonprofit founded by the only blind person to scale Mt. Everest.

Donoho’s group crossed rivers, hiked through dry backcountry and dipped in hot springs. The sudden transition from scorched desert to lush greenery along the way helped Donoho see parallels in his own struggles.

“I’m living my life, but I’m not really here. I haven’t made it back yet in a sense. I go through the motions, but I want to thoroughly enjoy my life the way I used to,” Donoho said. “From the point you go up and hit our summit, the high point of the mountain, I looked out, and it was just gorgeous, beautiful looking down all over the meadow that was full of life and thriving. It was so symbolic.”

Making a change

After returning home from Iraq in 2009 and medically retiring from the Army, Donoho knew his time overseas had left lasting scars – both physically and emotionally. And life at home wasn’t much easier; his wife battled a rare form of breast cancer and the couple went through several miscarriages.

Donoho had heard about the No Barriers Warriors program several years ago but always found an excuse not to go. Finally, as life’s pressures continued to mount, and after several military friends committed suicide, he knew he had to make a change. He signed up.

“I had two little kids, and I want to be an amazing father for them, one that they love to see and love to be around,” Donoho said. “What I realized is while I was trying really, really hard, until I have dealt with the issues that are inside my head, no matter how hard I try, I’m still not going to be giving them everything, because I don’t have it to give.”

John Toth, director of No Barriers Warriors, said Donoho’s openness and candor helped make the expedition a success for all.

“His willingness to share his struggles with the rest of the team was a big part of other people being willing to share their experiences and their challenges and success and failures,” Toth said. “He talked a lot about the things he’s dealt with and how he’s done. When everyone on the trip does that, the other participants learn from each other and they gain inspiration from each other.”

The pledge

And although the trip is over, the program is not. A No Barriers Warriors staff member follows up with each participant after the trip, and they are all required to come up with a personal challenge and complete it. For Donaho, that means publicly showing his photography from the trip in a gallery. He has contacted several people in the local arts community to begin setting it up.

“My challenge was to take the photography that I took during the expedition and do something that terrifies me, which is have a showing,” said Donoho, who plans to use the display as a fundraiser for No Barriers Warriors.

After completing the challenge, Donoho is eligible to apply for the next step in the No Barriers Warriors program – a trek through the San Juan range in Colorado. He hasn’t decided if he will apply, but he’s applying the No Barriers Warriors mantra to whatever life has in store next.

“‘What’s inside of you is stronger than what’s in front of you,’” he said. “I think it’s a perfect slogan.”

Learn more at nobarriersusa.org/warriors.

Coming home

Donoho, 38, grew up in South Bend. His wife is an Alaska native. The two met on an airplane when Donoho was on his way to a military base, and she was on her way back from a conference.

“It took me all of about three seconds to say, ‘Hi, my name is Eric,’ and that was it,” Donoho said. “It was an eight-hour flight. We had dinner and a movie.”

Donoho was eager to leave the Midwest for a new adventure, and he enjoyed living in Alaska. Then, one day his wife came home from work at the U.S. Dept. of Justice and told him she’d been transferred – to Indianapolis, of all places.

“Moving back to Indiana was, at first, something I was not looking forward to. I spent most of my life trying to leave,” Donoho said. “It ended up being one of the best things that could have happened to me. I’m surrounded by family who loves me. I have tons of family in Carmel, so it was a no-brainer where we were going to go.”

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