The gusts of wind came without warning.
They swept across the Rio Grande, putting a punishing chill into the already exhausted bodies of the expeditioners rafting down the river. The group was on the last stretch of a 10-mile trek, and they'd just hurtled into a cold front.
Zayna Aranda wasn't sure she could make it.
"I was freezing," she said. "My body apparently couldn't take it. I was hitting hypothermia."
Without hesitation, her fellow expeditioners — all military veterans, just like her — leaped into action. They surrounded her, shielding her from the wind, and pressed on. Nothing had stopped them so far, and this wouldn't either.
For Aranda, a U.S. Army veteran, that moment embodied the Veteran Wilderness Expedition. Against the vast backdrop of Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas, she and nine fellow disabled veterans hiked, climbed and rafted in a quest to face fears, bond with one another, overcome adversity, achieve goals and commit to improving their lives afterward.
"This trip reminded me there are good people ... people who care," said Aranda, who served in Iraq and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. "I am not alone."
The 2019 expedition included U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps veterans from Alabama, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. It marked the sixth year Raytheon Technologies and the nonprofit organization No Barriers Warriors have hosted the trip.
Aranda deployed for Iraq shortly after joining the Army as a supply specialist in 2005. She left the military in 2012 and found it hard to do even ordinary errands like getting groceries or gas.
“I didn’t know how to deal with everyday life anymore,” said Aranda, who is now a stay-at-home mother to three girls. “The fears I’ve had over all these years piled up.”
On the expedition, she said, her leaders and teammates helped her triumph in ways she could not have imagined, from a six-and-a-half-mile hike on the first day to the harrowing trek down the Rio Grande, where she powered through despite her plummeting body temperature and a fear of water.
“It’s amazing what your mind and body can do," she said. "I feel like I've been reborn. I have more courage to try something new.”
Aranda’s first order of business is to go back out into the wilderness — this time with her daughters, to take them camping and teach them a lesson: you can push past your fears.
“It (the expedition) changed me … saved my life,” Aranda said. “It made me realize there is hope.”