Two years ago, I found myself in the bedroom of my apartment staring down the barrel of a shotgun. I was angry, depressed and just didn't care about anything anymore. It's not that I didn't want to care; I did, but was just unable to do it. My soul was crushed and my heart had been broken time after time during intense fighting in Iraq and the continuous loss of friends at home after. In Iraq, I found it easier to give up than to care. But the problem was that once I stopped caring, I couldn't turn the switch back on. It was like dropping a glass plate on the ground and then trying to put the pieces back together.
That evening, I didn't pull the trigger. Obviously. This meant that I had proven that deep down I really did care and now I had only one option: to stop digging, throw down the shovel, and climb out of the hole I had nearly buried myself in. I started seeing VA counselors, going to groups, and taking prescription medication. But I did more than that. I promised to turn my life into what I wanted it to be. It was as if I had awoken from a bad dream and said, "Nope. It doesn't have to be this way. This is my story and I'm going to start writing it."
One of the best things I ever did was to dedicate more time to travel and service to others. That summer, I packed my bags and flew down to Belize and Guatemala where I spent two weeks exploring Mayan ruins, relaxing in the jungles, and scuba diving. That little vacation did more for me than I can possibly explain. There is something about immersing yourself in another culture that allows you to completely leave the world behind you for a while and really heal yourself.
The following winter, I packed up again and headed down to one of the most remote and beautiful places in the world: Patagonia. At the southern tip of Argentina and Chile, Patagonia is an absolute backpackers dream. There are endless mountains, glaciers, trails, and clean fresh air. I spent five weeks hiking some of the top-rated trails in the world; but more importantly, I could physically feel my heart healing.
As I continued to visit new countries and also explore more of the United States on epic road trips, I found peace and satisfaction; but even more than that, I found I was picking up pieces of my soul along the way. A quiet day fishing in the high Sierras, or a backpacking trip through Yosemite, or standing above the fjords of Norway all seemed to quietly return a piece of myself that no counselor or medication ever could.
Currently, I am on an 11-month missions trip to 11 countries with a team of 40 missionaries. We are bringing aid, development, and love everywhere we go and I am finding more pieces of myself every single month. Whether it's working in orphanages in Africa, or doing rural development in India, or teaching English to schoolchildren in Cambodia, I continuously find that I am regaining pieces of myself that I never could have found at the bottom of a whisky bottle or while sitting on my couch at home. Part of it is from helping others, which grows my heart and melts the ice and stone that covered it. Part of it is from travel, which fills my lungs and opens my eyes and gives me a love and appreciation for all the people of the world, including those in my own life.
If someone were to ask me what is the most rewarding, fulfilling, and life-changing thing they could possibly do with their lives, I would tell them this: Pack your bags and go. Pick a place that speaks to you. Don't worry too much about how because it will all work out. When you get there, enjoy yourself, but also embrace the culture and the people. Learn as much as possible. And never ever turn down an opportunity to help someone else. As Americans, we are oblivious to much of the pain and suffering in the world. We are self-absorbed and materialistic. Give up some of what you have and go travel. For everything that you leave behind or give away, you will gain ten times more.
Dave Smith is a former Marine infantryman and a graduate of UC Berkeley. He is currently on an 11-month missions trip around the world.