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PARK CITY — A Utah veteran who served in Iraq continues to fight for his fellow veterans. Retired Army Sergeant Josh Hansen came home with serious physical and emotional scars of war, but found hope and healing through exercise.
"By forcing myself to do it and getting out, I started feeling better," Hansen said, while enjoying a cross-country skiing workout at the White Pine Nordic Center in Park City.
In battle, Hansen lost six of his men in combat. Back at home, four more took their own lives. Now, he's on a mission to leave no veteran behind.
"After I had a few of my fellow veterans take their own lives, I said, 'OK, I led guys in the war, it's time to lead them here at home,'" he said.
So he and Laura Cantin, an adaptive sports specialist, founded Continue Mission "No Veteran Left Behind" with the objective to integrate the veterans back into civilian life to "get the vets out of the house, and get them into activities," Hansen said.
The co-founders know the healing power of rigorous exercise like cross-country skiing.
After I had a few of my fellow veterans take their own lives, I said, 'OK, I led guys in the war, it's time to lead them here at home.'
–Retired Marine Sergeant Josh Hansen
"We have a passion for what we do, and we want to share that," said Cantin. "We don't want our veterans to be stuck at home and not enjoy the camaraderie that they did in the service."
In Iraq, Hansen hunted for improvised explosive devices in support of the 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Expeditionary Forces in and around Fallujah. During his second tour, his vehicle sustained eight direct hits by IEDs, which caused multiple injuries over a seven-month period before he was flown out of Iraq on March 15, 2007.
Hansen came home with a traumatic brain injury, knee, back and neck injuries, and he suffered from post-traumatic stress. He slipped into depression and struggled to get his life back.
"In the military, you had a purpose," he said. "In war you have a purpose. When you get home, you're lost in the civilian world."
While many Utah veterans of the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War came home several years ago, Hansen said, the healing is a lifetime journey for many of them. He said they all need to find ways to stay healthy and avoid long bouts of depression.
Through exercise and time outside with friends, Hansen said he minimized his own depression. He improved his health and lost weight through bike riding, snowshoeing and skiing.
That's the focus of Continue Mission.
"Get in shape, feel good and hopefully make some very positive life changes," said Cantin.
Next week, Continue Mission launches an eight-week program for Utah veterans at the White Pine Nordic Center, which is donating season passes for the veterans. The center was eager to show support for the veterans.
"I can't even imagine what these folks have gone through," said Patrick Coffey, director of the nordic center. "Anything we can do to help them come back home and integrate into civilian life, I'm very happy to be a part of that."
Community support and donations for Continue Mission has surged. Whole Foods is providing lunches during the skiing program. The veterans come to Continue Mission through the Wounded Warrior Project. The nonprofit offers ongoing events for veterans from all wars.
Hansen said he already knows the veterans will discover the healing he found through exercise and camaraderie.