Veterans Return To Iraq, Seeking Peace Through Adventure

In climbing Mount Halgurd, Iraq War veterans find healing—and an opportunity to support nearby communities.

The summit push had taken longer than expected, and the snow, which on the climb up was soft and forgiving, had now frozen over with a breakable layer of icy crust, making our ski descent significantly more menacing. Robin and Griff, who on the climb had used crampons and ice axes for the first time, watched as Stacy took his first turns on shaky legs into the maw of the main chute off the southwestern face of Mount Halgurd, the highest peak entirely within the borders of Iraq. For these three veterans of the Iraq War, this descent—which would mark the first ever American ascent and descent of Halgurd by skis, would be but a moment in a much larger story and step towards reconciliation and healing in each of their lives.

When you meet him, you wouldn’t know Stacy Bare had been deployed in, or cleaned up on the tail end of, a number of intense flash points of U.S. armed conflict. Even after leaving these experiences behind, Bare holds onto the complexities of his life as a soldier and the void he felt after returning from his Iraq deployment in 2007. Emboldened by his deep love for a new family, he discovered that, when exploring the outdoors, he could start to fill the holes left in the wake of war and its following chaos.

His organisation, Adventure Not War, is the result of that discovery and rooted in the idea that veterans might find some sort of peace by returning to the places they were deployed. Bare’s ultimate goal is to promote peace and understanding through adventure, and on this trip he and veterans Robin Brown and Matthew Griffin worked alongside the non-profit Tent Ed to provide educational supplies to children displaced by war. The film Adventure Not War shows the team working toward the summit of Iraq's Mount Halgurd—and toward their own healing.

Veterans Robin Brown, Matthew Griffin, and Stacy Bare pause for a portrait after skiing Mount Halgurd.

At the start of filming, our team walked out of Erbil International Airport into an atmosphere filled with tension. The U.S.-backed Kurdish forces were making a major push against ISIS in the city of Mosul just 50 miles away, and the Trump administration had recently declared a travel ban against citizens from ten different nations, which included Iraq. This seemed to be the most inopportune moment to mount a skiing expedition in the country. After just two days in the city preparing for our travel to Mount Halgurd, the film crew began to understand the nature of this complicated, many-layered place that had been looming in the minds of the veterans on the trip.

A young girl in a Yazidi refugee camp stands in a field with her. PHOTOGRAPH BY MAX LOWE

Three Yazidi elders sit outside a community center near Mount Halgurd. PHOTOGRAPH BY MAX LOWE

In subsequent days, traveling through the Iraqi countryside and sharing tea with Yazidi elders in their sacred city, meals with our local guides and hosts, and stories of past wars and current realities, the walls built up by war began to crumble. As evening fell over the tiny mountain town of Choman, and we looked up to the snowy summit of Mount Halgurd from a rooftop with new friends made from old enemies, the true meaning behind this journey became clear. The Muslim call to prayer echoed across the valley from the local mosque’s speakers, and we turned from the darkening vista to follow Omar, our host, into his home for dinner.

We would leave at 5 a.m. the next morning to begin our ascent and eventual summit of Halgurd, but that night as we ate and laughed with Omar and his extended family, the veterans shared pictures of their children with Omar’s wife and grandmother. There was a sense of home, here in this place that had for so long felt dark and distant.

The team of veterans begins their nighttime ascent to Mount Halgurd's summit.

Max Lowe is a filmmaker, photographer, and writer based in Montana. Follow him on Instagram @max.lowe.

Lead Image: A team of veterans makes their way up the winding route to the base of Iraq's Mount Halgurd. The group climbed the mountain in an effort to heal their own wounds and promote peace through adventure. PHOTOGRAPH BY MAX LOWE

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