Veterans on the Camino

An interview with VOC founder and US Navy veteran Brad Genereux

Photo by Vittorio Staffolani from Pexels

Last month we wrote a post titled “Save Our Pilgrim Paths” that focused on the “explosion of interest in religious pilgrimage routes” and the people and organizations working to revive them.

We featured Austrian priest Fr. Johannes Maria Schwarz’s epic journey along the “Via Sacra Alpina,” and linked to a podcast where he was interviewed by Kevin Donahue, host of the “Sacred Steps Podcast.”

After posting that story, we kept on listening to Kevin’s podcast and came across his interview with US Navy veteran Senior Chief Petty Officer Brad Genereux, the founder of “Veterans on the Camino,” a 501(c)(3) non-profit that sponsors veterans to walk the Camino de Santiago pilgrim route in Spain together.

Brad writes on his website’s About page that:

Veterans on the Camino is a project that provides Veterans with the means and the resources to take the ancient pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago.  This 500 mile journey starts in southwestern France, follows the northwestern coast of Spain to Santiago de Compostela and ultimately ends at the coast.  The place people once considered to be the end of the earth.

This isn’t for everybody. But there are those who stand to benefit greatly. Those Veterans who are lost, disconnected and losing hope can make this walk and find that inner peace one step at a time.

Everybody is on their own Camino. My purpose isn’t to shape your experience, rather, I will remove obstacles and offer assistance to make this possible.

If you think walking “The Way” is something that will help, or you know of a Veteran who needs change – please contact me for detailed information. If you want to help make a difference, donations are appreciated.

We were very inspired by this initiative, and so we wrote to Brad directly to ask for an interview, to which he generously agreed.

Without further ado, here is our interview with Senior Chief Brad Genereux of “Veterans on the Camino:”

Save Our Shrines: How did you become familiar with the Camino and when did you start thinking about walking it? Did you walk it before starting Veterans on the Camino?

Brad Genereux: I first read about the Camino in the spring of 2014 while living in Dubai post military retirement.  I was looking for more work, mostly idling, when I came across an article that featured a collection of stunning photos taken on this thing called “The Camino.” 

I immediately googled it, and within seconds knew that I was going to go.  I scrounged for appropriate gear (hard to find in Dubai on a budget!), and I booked a one way flight with only two weeks to train.

Sadly, just days before my departure, I got word that my Mom passed away, so I had to put my Camino plans on the back burner as I rushed home to be with family.

If anything, my need to go only grew stronger.   So, in the fall of 2014 I finally put on my backpack and began this incredible journey.

My first Camino was the French Way.  I determined while walking it to write a book, A SOLDIER TO SANTIAGO. In the process of getting it published, I walked the Via de la Plata in the spring of 2015 and then the Camino Norte and Primitivo in the spring of 2016.  It was during those walks that I began thinking that it wasn’t enough just to share my story in a book.  I wanted to do more.  So in 2016, Veterans on the Camino came into being.

Save Our Shrines: You write on your About page that you “faced hell in Afghanistan and found yourself again while walking the Camino de Santiago.” Have you found that other veterans walking the Camino have similarly benefited? What motivated them to join you in the Camino?

Brad Genereux: I like to believe that the Camino has helped other veterans. I have talked to many other veterans who found the Camino outside of VOC and it was every bit as significant for them as it was for me. I especially like to believe that the veterans who go with VOC on the Camino are changed as well.  Oftentimes it’s a very private crucible we all endure and I respect that privacy.  I guess the primary testimonial I have to offer is witnessing the change in the eyes.  There is usually a profound difference between the often flat, listless look we start with and the energized look of pure joy I see in Finisterre.

The veterans have many reasons for joining VOC to walk such a long way.  I think that most of the time they aren’t exactly sure what drives them to want to join us when they apply.  Perhaps it’s the Camino calling them like it did for me.  I think many of them would find their way to the Camino with or without VOC.  VOC is there to remove obstacles and offer encouragement so that they can make this journey.

Save Our Shrines: A lot of us who aren’t veterans know veterans or have veteran family members, and many readers probably know veterans who are suffering from some of their experiences. If we want to encourage our friends/relatives to give the Camino a try, what have you found most helpful in convincing veterans that this significant time commitment is worth it?

I have actually never tried to convince anyone to give the Camino a try.  I think it calls people.  The veterans who apply to walk the Camino with VOC need no convincing, they all truly want to go.  I have had a couple of them drop out of the program before traveling to Spain.  They always have reasons.  I don’t try to force the issue.  They simply aren’t ready to face what is going to rise to the surface on that long walk.  

Oddly, the time commitment never seems to be an issue.  Once the Camino calls, people get creative in making that 35ish days available.

Save Our Shrines: What has the response been to your initiative?  What feedback have you been getting from the veteran community?

The response from the veteran and pilgrim community has been tremendous. Many veterans have been treated with pharmaceuticals for a wide range of issues as a result of their military service.  They are tired of it.  The Camino provides a different approach to dealing with the emotional scars of the battlefield - one that doesn’t reduce you to a drug induced haze while time slides past. 

My first Camino was solo.  I took a leap of faith and went on my own.  I had no plans beyond walking it off.  VOC has brought about an unforeseen element that draws many of our participants.  It’s the desire to rejoin a group of fellow warriors to make this walk.  The camaraderie that develops fills a void that has been empty since most of them left the service.  In addition, VOC is open for all coalition veterans.  So we get this amazing chemistry as a result of the different nationalities represented.  Many times throughout my career I served side by side with foreign soldiers - when VOC was created, I envisioned this walk should once again place us side by side.

I only wish I could take more!  I hear from many of the veterans who have participated on a regular basis.  It is my honor to know that VOC has such a positive and lasting effect.

Save Our Shrines: Do you find that most of the veterans who walk the Camino are religious? Does it help if they are? What would you say to someone who’s not at all religious but is interested in the experience?

I don’t ask about religion at any point during the application process.  It normally comes up during casual conversation somewhere along the way.  Personally, I have found that the Camino is a super-charged spiritual experience.  I think it’s nice if they are Christian and enjoy the many churches, cathedrals and services along the way.  But absolutely not necessary.  In fact, the Camino was a pilgrimage long before Christianity.  Religion is another area I afford a great deal of privacy - because somewhere along that very long walk each veteran is likely going to have a conversation with their God.

Save Our Shrines: How do you work out the logistics? Do you do them all yourself or use a company over there?

VOC arranges and pays for the boots and backpack as soon as the veterans are selected - so that they can be broken in well in advance of starting the walk.  We also arrange for and pay for all the travel.  Also, each veteran gets a modest per diem to cover food and albergue [pilgrim lodging] costs.

I firmly believe that the Camino is meant to not be overplanned. We don’t use a company.

I only have a couple of rules:

  1. Walk everywhere (no trains, taxis, boats, buses, bicycles, etc)

  2. No shipping backpacks.  What you decide to bring is a reflection of your own insecurities. You must own it, and carry it.

Save Our Shrines: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

VOC is a 501(c)(3).  We have no paid positions.  Every penny we collect goes directly to sending a veteran on the Camino.

2020 was a difficult year for the entire planet.  The veterans who were selected to go in the spring of 2020 are patiently waiting.  All of them.  A few of that group could have gone already but elected to wait until the entire group is able to go.  I couldn’t be prouder of them for making that choice.

Buen Camino!

Brad Genereux

We hope you were inspired by that interview as much as we were. You can follow Brad’s pilgrimages on Instagram and on Facebook. If you would like to donate to “Veterans on the Camino” you can do so via PayPal here. In addition, if you would like to become a paid subscriber of this Save Our Shrines newsletter, we will donate all subscriptions that come via this article to “Veterans on the Camino” as well. Buen camino a todos!