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SALT LAKE CITY — An Iraq War veteran discovered healing and camaraderie while rock climbing in Utah. He got so much out of it that he developed a program to pass on to other veterans.
"Climbing in the veteran community is what helped me get my life back on track," said Mike Cumming, who joined the U.S. Marine Corps three days after high school graduation.
It takes energy, determination, trust and problem-solving to rock climb, he said. When Cumming left active-duty service, he had a hard time readjusting to civilian life. But he discovered those same characteristics were touchstones in his route to recovery.
"There's something about climbing that's not like anything else," he said.
Cumming shares his passion with other veterans. As a student at the University of Utah, he started Operation Climb On last August. It's a nonprofit that offers an eight-week, therapeutic rock climbing course to veterans and their families. The instructors who work with him are veterans, too.
"This means the world to me," Cumming said of his rock climbing passion. "I'm more passionate about doing this than anything in my life."
Rock climbing is an individual challenge that demands trust in the person at the other end of the rope. It also demands all of your attention, Cumming said.
"You have to focus so much on what you're doing that it takes your mind off of everything else," he added.
And that's therapy for Cumming.
When he got home from multiple deployments in Iraq and left active duty, he struggled with wounds from an IED explosion and post traumatic stress disorder.
"It got really bad," he said.
Fellow veterans convinced him to get help at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where a counselor urged him to get back into climbing. His stress eased, and he started to trust again.
The University of Utah is currently accepting nominations for the 2014-15 student veteran of the year award.
The nominees will be recognized with nominees for 11 Utah veterans at the U.'s annual Veterans Day ceremony in November.
Nominations can be submitted online at the Veterans Support Center.
Warren Young is an Iraq War veteran who met Cumming while a student at the U. He also loved spending time outside, fell in love with climbing, and reaped the same internal rewards. And he believes the two aren't the only ones who could benefit from climbing.
"It's going to help veterans everywhere," Young said.
Young and Chris Johnson went climbing with his instructors at a popular wall in Draper. In the midst of the exercise and focus was a lot of camaraderie, friendship and good-natured ribbing.
"I think it's a great asset," said Johnson, who deployed to Afghanistan with the Army Reserves in 2009. "I think more veterans should come do it."
He likes the physical and mental challenge of rock climbing. He needs to trust his rock climbing partners, but they won't scale the wall for him.
"If you don't make it to the top, there's only you and the wall," he said.
Nearly 1,000 veterans attend the University of Utah, which honored Cumming as its Student Veteran of the Year for his work developing the climbing program. He graduated in December with a bachelor's degree in adventure and outdoor programs, and began a master's degree in parks, recreation and tourism this spring.
"There's just something about being able to help my brothers and sisters," he said.
The University of Utah is taking nominations for the Student Veteran of the Year in 2014-15.The school is also asking for the public's help in honorees for its annual Veterans Day ceremony Nov. 11. Nominees can be a veteran of any war.