Healing Horizons: Ukrainian Widows and Children Navigate Grief and Trauma at an Alpine Climbing Camp in Austria 2024-04-20 11:40:41

"Ukrainian Widows and Children Find Hope in the Austrian Alps: A Journey of Healing and Resilience

Amidst the echoes of war, a bus filled with widows and children, bound for the Austrian Alps, embarked on a journey of healing and resilience. Invited to a charity summer camp by Nathan Schmidt, an American marine intimately acquainted with the toll of conflict, these families carried the weight of grief and trauma from the loss of loved ones defending Ukraine against an unprovoked invasion.

Nathan Schmidt, whose own path to recovery involved mountain climbing after three combat tours in Iraq, extended an improbable hope to the grieving families—that, in six days amidst the serene Alps, he could guide them toward rising above the shadows of loss. The arduous 45-hour journey culminated at an Austrian hotel at 3 in the morning, leaving widows skeptical and filled with the lingering skepticism that seemed to have packed along with them.

The widows, whose husbands were among the estimated 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers killed, bear the heavy burden of loss. Natalia Zaremba, a widow with two young boys, shared her poignant perspective. Her husband, Mykhailo Zaremba, a navy pilot, was shot down in May 2022 during the invasion of his homeland. Despite the unimaginable pain, Natalia expressed her hope for the trip—to find strength, not to let her husband down, and to pave the way for a better future for their children.

Thirteen widows and 20 children from Mykolaiv, a city besieged by Russian bombings for 260 days, undertook a 1,300-mile journey on faith to meet a stranger, Nathan Schmidt, who is still grappling with his own wartime wounds. Schmidt, a Naval Academy graduate and lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, led the summer camp under his charity, the Mountain Seed Foundation. The camp's name, inspired by a biblical reference about faith moving mountains, reflects the essence of the foundation's mission—to instill faith in something bigger and the belief that, with faith, one can move mountains.

As shouts of glory to Ukraine echoed through the Alpine landscape, the camp aimed to foster resilience, hope, and self-belief in the bereaved families. Schmidt's vision extends beyond the serene landscapes of the Austrian Alps; he hopes that, upon their return to Ukraine, these families carry with them a renewed sense of strength, a steadfast belief in their ability to surmount challenges, and the seeds of hope planted during their time amidst the mountains."

"Nathan Schmidt, a beacon of inspiration and healing, embarked on a mission to impart life lessons through mountaineering to a group of widows and children in the Austrian Alps. As they prepared for the ascent of Mount Kitzsteinhorn, soaring above 10,000 feet, Schmidt illuminated the symbolic power of the rope in mountaineering—a tangible representation of community, teamwork, and courage. The rope, tethering climbers as they ascend daunting heights, serves as a reminder that courage doesn't eliminate fear; rather, it empowers individuals to confront and overcome it.

For the children, aged 5 to 17, and their mothers, the journey extended beyond the physical ascent. Daily group therapy sessions for the mothers mirrored the challenges faced by their children in mountaineering training. Schmidt emphasized trust—trust in oneself, in the equipment, and in the team. The team comprised professional guides and volunteers, including Dan Cnossen, a Navy SEAL and three-time Paralympian who lost his legs in Afghanistan in 2009.

The training days were punctuated with moments of tension, fear, and triumph. The climb demanded trust and resilience, echoing the larger journey of overcoming grief and trauma. For Myroslav Kupchenkov, a 14-year-old who lost his father to a Russian missile, the climb became a poignant metaphor for moving forward. His father, Oleksandr Kupchenkov, a 53-year-old career soldier, exemplified bravery and forward momentum until his tragic demise in March 2022.

As the children learned the intricacies of rappelling and faced their fears, the mothers grappled with their own emotional trials. The journey, both physical and emotional, became a testament to the human spirit's capacity to endure, learn, and find triumph in the face of adversity. Amidst the Alpine peaks, the rope became a symbol not just of ascent but of shared strength, resilience, and the indomitable spirit that guides each step forward."

"In the profound journey of healing amidst the Austrian Alps, clinical psychologist Amit Oren played a pivotal role, guiding the widows and children with a unique perspective. Oren, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Medicine, chose to focus not on their trauma but on their inherent strengths—qualities like love and honesty. His approach was to illuminate the strengths within, allowing these grieving individuals to rediscover and remember who they are.

With translation assistance from Iryna Prykhodko, the Ukrainian co-founder of the charity, Oren led the group, offering a beacon of hope through the power of introspection and self-discovery. His metaphorical flashlight shone on the capacity for resilience within each participant, emphasizing the transformative potential of acknowledging and building on one's strengths.

For Svitlana Melnyichuk, the journey proved to be an internal struggle, a battle against her own anger and grief. Her husband, Yuriy, a civilian building inspector turned volunteer after Putin's invasion, sent messages from the front, expressing love and care for the family he had prioritized over work. However, Yuriy's revelation was cut short by his untimely death, leaving Svitlana with unspoken sorrow and profound rage.

Nathan Schmidt, the catalyst for this transformative journey, had his own journey of healing. In 2019, grappling with grief, Schmidt, a former Marine, embarked on a climbing trip despite his fear of heights. The daunting challenge became a force capable of breaking through his grief, leading him to the realization that nothing could truly prepare anyone for the harsh realities of war.

As these stories intertwine in the Alpine landscape, the journey becomes a testament to the shared human experience of loss, resilience, and the potential for transformative healing. The Austrian Alps, with their towering peaks and challenging terrain, serve not just as a physical backdrop but as a symbolic arena where individuals confront their fears, navigate grief, and discover the strength within to move forward."

"Nathan Schmidt, a resilient former Marine deeply acquainted with the wounds of war, shared the profound impact of his experiences, revealing the cracks within him that took years to heal. Witnessing the death of his teacher in a rocket strike during his first tour in Iraq marked the beginning of a series of traumas, including the loss of fellow Marines and the toll on his unit's effectiveness. By the end of November, his unit had suffered over 20% casualties, leaving Schmidt physically strong but emotionally broken.

Reflecting on his post-war self, Schmidt admitted that, despite his perceived strength, he was, in reality, the weakest. The cracks in his psyche, a result of the cumulative traumas, would take a lifetime to heal. The weight of these experiences informed his approach to healing others—a journey that became a reciprocal process during the week-long summer camp in the Austrian Alps.

The program, designed to heal bereaved Ukrainian children and their mothers, served as a transformative experience for Schmidt himself. Acknowledging the selfish aspect of its impact on him, Schmidt expressed that the program had healed him in ways he couldn't describe. The unique healing dynamic, intertwined with the challenges faced by the participants, hinted at the profound transformations occurring within each individual.

As the summer camp unfolded against the backdrop of the Austrian Alps, the participants faced challenges symbolizing the hurdles of grief and trauma. The Mooserboden Dam, a towering structure in the Hohe Tauern National Park, became a metaphorical wall for the widows and children. The physical challenges, including a zipline and footholds across the dam, mirrored the emotional risks and doubts they grappled with. The experience, while daunting, hinted at the potential for revelation and transformation—a theme woven into the fabric of their healing journey."

"Nathan Schmidt, co-founder of the Mountain Seed Foundation charity, orchestrated the challenging ascent of the Mooserboden Dam in the Austrian Alps as a deliberate confrontation with discomfort and fear for the widows and children in attendance. The dam, a prominent tourist attraction for rock climbers, served as a symbolic wall representing the emotional hurdles they faced in their journey of healing.

Safety was paramount in this endeavor, with professional mountain guides ensuring the participants' security. The equipment, thoroughly trained on throughout the week, provided an additional layer of assurance. Even the youngest participants were short-roped to a guide, reinforcing multiple layers of protection. The real challenge lay not just under their feet but beneath their skin—a test of resilience and the ability to confront personal fears.

For Myroslav Kupchenkov, the climb became a testament to his father's ethos of always moving forward. Schmidt acknowledged that facing difficult moments becomes more manageable when individuals realize they have already overcome more daunting challenges in life. The transformation at the summit was marked by sheer joy, an emotion that would serve as a strong point for the participants upon their return to Ukraine.

Natalia Zaremba, who sought strength to raise her boys alone, experienced something incredible at the summit. The profound impact of the climb was evident as her older son handed her a branch from a bush in lieu of flowers. While her smile reflected a moment of happiness, Natalia candidly expressed that the pain in her heart remained strong, a poignant reminder of her husband's absence.

Despite the lingering pain, words of inspiration, such as those from Navy SEAL Dan Cnossen, resonated with the participants. Cnossen's message of taking control of one's narrative despite enduring hardships left a lasting impression, providing a glimmer of hope amidst the profound challenges of grief and loss. The climb became a collective triumph over personal fears, a powerful symbol of resilience, and a step forward in the participants' journey toward healing."

"Yet, for some, like Svitlana Melnyichuk, words proved inadequate. She had shared how her husband, killed by the Russians, used to send photos of flowers from his trench until his untimely death. She poignantly expressed, 'Life is a book that you read your whole life. When my husband died, I stopped turning the pages in the book.' Opening a new chapter became the aim for clinical psychologist Amit Oren, who sought to scale the walls surrounding Svitlana's emotions. The journey took them to a storybook castle, a metaphor for the intricate and impenetrable walls within.

At the castle, Amit Oren engaged the widows in a conversation about the castle walls and the windows that allow glimpses of beauty when opened. Positioned at the bottom of the metaphorical castle, they were encouraged to ascend and discover the metaphorical windows. The session prompted several women, including Svitlana, to open up to each other, breaking the emotional barriers that had confined them. Svitlana acknowledged the pain of the conversation and, crucially, made a decision to release her anger, recognizing that it was choking her ability to breathe.

In the aftermath of the group session, Svitlana approached Amit Oren, expressing that the conversation had been painful but transformative. She articulated her decision to let go of the anger that had been stifling her. While recognizing the challenges ahead, she understood that she had a choice in determining how open or closed she would be in her emotional castle.

Nathan Schmidt reflected on the unexpected hardships faced by the mothers, particularly the invasion in February 2022, which led to the loss of homes and an uncertain future. Drawing parallels to climbing, Schmidt highlighted the moments of uncertainty, akin to not knowing where to place hands or feet. The program aimed to provide the mothers with metaphorical footholds and handholds, addressing the emotional cracks within them and empowering them to lead their children back up the metaphorical mountain of life."

"On the fifth day, a singular challenge loomed – the ascent to the peak of Mount Kitzsteinhorn. Nathan Schmidt led the way from a high tram station, embarking on a steep and icy climb of 570 feet, a formidable trial for the camp participants. Much like the previous dam climb, a fixed cable provided a lifeline, but the icy terrain and sheer altitude introduced an element of peril. Looking both down and up revealed the gravity of the endeavor.

Recalling Schmidt's teachings about the rope, which symbolized community, courage, and responsibility, the climbers began their ascent. Schmidt emphasized the profound responsibility shared on the rope, where supporting each other during moments of weakness and fatigue was paramount. The hope was that these lessons would extend beyond the mountains, inspiring the participants to build communities and encourage others to confront their fears with courage.

Courage propelled them to a triumphant summit at 10,508 feet, a feat achieved by everyone, including Dan Cnossen, Schmidt's Naval Academy classmate, navigating the ascent on prosthetics. Natalia Zaremba, who sought inner strength in Austria, saw from the peak that true strength emerges from collective bonds. She expressed that the shared achievements taught them to be braver together, emphasizing the collective strength required to overcome adversity.

Myroslav Kupchenkov, one of the climbers, declared newfound empowerment, believing he could now conquer anything. Schmidt articulated his hope for the participants to remember their achievements and the serenity of the mountains, a refuge from the sounds of war. In these Alpine heights, with eyes closed, one could feel a sense of weightlessness, momentarily escaping the harsh realities of conflict.

Even Svitlana Melnyichuk, who had initially struggled with emotional walls, experienced a symbolic flight – ascending to the summit and, metaphorically, to the high, open windows of her emotional castle. The mountain journey became a metaphor for resilience, unity, and the enduring peace found in the face of challenges."

Svitlana Melnyichuk, with an exhalation of breath that echoed through the Alpine peaks, candidly shared her emotional release atop Mount Kitzsteinhorn. In her own words, she admitted, "I was screaming, to be honest, I was simply screaming." With lungs filled with crisp mountain air, her voice soared toward the heavens, an expression directed at the cosmos, whether God or nature. The act served as a purging of negativity, an expulsion of the burdens she carried.

When asked if this experience contributed, even in a small way, to her healing, Svitlana acknowledged the impact. "Oh. Well, at least I managed to open the bag of my sorrows. To open their sorrows to the sky." In these moments atop the Austrian Alps, the weight of collective grief seemed momentarily lifted, replaced by a sense of liberation and communion with the vast expanse above.

Five days prior, they had embarked on a journey tethered by a common thread of brokenness. Now, as they prepared to return to the harsh realities of war, they did so with spirits reborn, fortified by newfound strength, love, and an invincible hope that transcended the trials of their past. In the backdrop of resilience, their ascent became a testament to the transformative power of shared burdens, a collective ascent toward healing. Produced by Oriana Zill de Granados and Michael Rey, with contributions from Jaime Woods and Michelle Karim, and edited by Robert Zimet. Correspondent for "60 Minutes": Scott Pelley.

In the heart of the Austrian Alps, the journey for widows and children of war unfolded as a poignant narrative of healing and resilience. From the skepticism that filled a bus departing Ukraine to the triumphant cries atop Mount Kitzsteinhorn, the Mountain Seed Foundation's summer camp, led by American marine Nathan Schmidt, etched a transformative chapter in the lives of those touched by the scourge of conflict.

Amidst the majestic peaks, the participants confronted discomfort, scaled walls both physical and metaphorical, and found footholds of courage, community, and responsibility. The challenges, from the daring climb of the Mooserboden Dam to the icy ascent of Mount Kitzsteinhorn, mirrored the arduous paths of grief, yet each triumph over fear illuminated a beacon of hope.

Clinical psychologist Amit Oren guided the widows through castle walls of emotion, urging them to open windows to their inner selves. For some, like Svitlana Melnyichuk, the journey provided a profound release—a scream into the vastness, a letting go of sorrows to the sky.

As they descended from the Alpine heights, the returning group carried not only the physical achievement of their climb but also an intangible strength born from shared experiences. The camp, conceived by Schmidt's Mountain Seed Foundation, became a crucible of healing, forging bonds that transcended the scars of war.

In the echoes of laughter and tears in the mountain air, the conclusion of this Alpine odyssey is a testament to the indomitable human spirit. The hope, rekindled amidst peaks and valleys, promises to resonate far beyond the Austrian Alps, offering solace and inspiration to those grappling with the aftermath of war. Produced by Oriana Zill de Granados and Michael Rey, with contributions from Jaime Woods and Michelle Karim, and edited by Robert Zimet. Correspondent for "60 Minutes": Scott Pelley.


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