A Trio of Veteran Organizations Shines Brightly
Record the Journey, Veteran Overland, and Southern Xpeditions have three things in common: a great love for the outdoors, vehicle-sustained adventure, and helping veterans. Each organization has its unique spin on making a difference, but collectively they do it with passion, honesty, and humility. Veterans helping veterans, changing lives at every dusty turn of a trail, campfire chat, or re-integration into everyday life.
The leaders of this trio are all veterans. Their love for the outdoors and adventure drew each of them, independently, to overlanding. They were enveloped in the community and realized over time that vehicular-based travel and experiencing Mother Nature was healing them. In turn, they wanted to give back, help others, and share this experience with veterans struggling with reintegration, PTSD, or a host of other postwar or post-service issues. Each org was born out of a desire to help veterans, however, anyone can help these organizations, veteran or not.
Record the Journey
Record the Journey Founder and CEO, Rachael Ridenour, hails from a small farm in Iowa, but joined the U.S. Army at 18 “to see the world.” Her first assignment was in South Korea where she drove a 1964 JM151A1 Jeep. At 21, she was stationed back in the U.S. and purchased her first vehicle, a 1993 Jeep Wrangler. “My love of vehicle-based adventure started that day,” she states.
As she got older, she switched marques and got a Toyota 4Runner. “At some point between my multiple deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, I put everything in storage and lived the van life inside the 4Runner, way before van life was cool,” Ridenour exclaims. She was on her own journey “back to self.” Hence, the 501(c)(3) non-profit Record the Journey came to be.
One of the challenges veterans face is reconciling who they were before the war with who they are after the war. “After a few false starts, I discovered getting into the wilderness with a camera helped me find the stillness I was looking for. When you look through the lens of a camera you have to be completely present or you miss the moment.” Record the Journey is bringing this to other military veterans and their families through outdoor photography adventures and adaptive overlanding.
Record the Journey’s outdoor photography adventures make a difference for veterans:
“For the first time in years I wasn’t in my head battling demons or questioning my worth, I wasn’t thinking about anything except how to capture my view in that moment.” —Anonymous U.S. Army veteran
“I didn’t find healing or peace, they found me … wandering in a desert taking pictures. I learned that there is creativity in all of us, peace can find you, and camaraderie lasts a lifetime.” —Anonymous U.S. Army veteran
One of Record the Journey’s biggest adaptive overlanding successes was training and sponsoring Air Force veteran Karah Behrend in the Rebelle Rally. Behrend became the first disabled athlete to complete and podium in the all-women’s off-road navigation rally.
“Veteran Overland is an amazing organization. I’ve made some incredible lifelong friends, some great memories, and am looking forward to more in the future. The work they do and the inclusion they have for the veteran community and its supporters is top-notch.” —Shane Heltzel, U.S. Air Force veteran
“Military transition is complex and is experienced by 100 percent of all service members,” Ridenour says. “It’s normal for veterans to feel isolated while going through these transitions.” It can be extremely difficult to discuss these moments and the effects they have had with loved ones.
“The beauty of photography is that no words are required,” Ridenour exclaims. “Families can get out and have a shared experience and simply be in the moment.” Record the Journey always has their adventure outdoors “because no one we know joined the military to sit around in a classroom.”
Founder Jeff McPike and cofounder Will Hardison of Veteran Overland recognized “a clear demand for an organized outlet for veterans and veteran supporters who wanted to get outdoors and practice many of the skills they learned during their service.”
“We don’t do this for accolades, we do this out of love for others. The sleepless nights, long days planning, and countless reroutes amidst this crazy world we live are all worth it to make a positive impact on someone’s life; that change is not temporary but for LIFE.” —Derrick Oursler
McPike, an eight-year Army veteran with a combat deployment to Iraq in 2003-2004, helps veterans in additional capacities. He’s taught convoy operations to deploying troops, cofounded the Nike Military Veteran’s Network at Nike World Headquarters, and is doing his part to help vets make the leap into civilian careers.
Hardison deployed to Afghanistan in 2007 and is currently serving his 15th year in the Army. He traveled the southern part of Afghanistan in HMMWVs prepared to go anywhere, “often for an unknown amount of time and rarely on pavement.” In 2015, after moving to Oregon, he purchased his first 4×4: a 1997 Toyota Land Cruiser. Since then, Hardison’s owned a 100- and 200-Series LC.
“We noticed many veterans in the overland community, but found no way for them to connect,” Hardison states. Veteran Overland was created to fulfill that need.
Veteran Overland is a 501(c)(3) focused on improving veterans’ lives through “the proven healing power of connection, the positive mental impact of the outdoors, and the need for post-service skill-building through overlanding,” McPike explains. The duo found there’s a wide range of veterans in need: those with post-traumatic stress, physical disabilities, combat vets with no physical or mental issues, or veterans who didn’t serve in combat but are feeling the void their service has left.
Most of Veteran Overland’s events are outdoors: camping trips, overland-style excursions, snow-wheeling, off-roading trips, overland rallies, and trail cleanups. They also offer periodic indoor events like toy drives and “cars and coffee” events—all to help veterans.
“To us, resilience is the intentional mental effort of finding the good in each day,” McPike exclaims. “We started VO as a way to build resiliency through sharing these attributes with other veterans and veteran supporters. By organizing events and inviting veterans along, we hope to make the lasting connections that promote resiliency.”
Their biggest “wins” are small, private conversations they have with those who express the positive impact Veteran Overland had on their lives. “We never dreamed VO would become what it is and are very proud of the help it provides,” Hardison adds.
Founder Derrick Oursler is a 2006-2009 U.S. Army veteran who was deployed to Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom while being stationed in Fort Benning, Georgia. He, along with cofounder veterans Hudson Toothaker, Jim Kazmier, and Rich Ivey created Southern Xpeditions LLC, an organization of like-minded individuals focused on making a positive difference for veterans.
Founded in 2016, Southern Xpeditions intended to share their journeys of exploration, but it quickly turned into something very, very, different. “Before we leave, we want to make a positive mark on this world of ours, all while exploring its wonders!”
As a veteran-founded organization, their number one focus is giving back. It’s the reason they joined the military in the first place—to help others in need regardless of their own personal opinions. In addition to their e-commerce site, Southern Xpeditions’ main driver of proceeds to help veterans is their yearly Overland Challenge event. Net ticket sales help veterans from all walks of life.
The Overland Challenge boasts 30 teams who battle against each other, Mother Nature, and themselves to become the ultimate champion of the event. Various challenges like recovery exercises, off-road contests, and team-building games await contestants. It’s a three-day event that challenges all levels of competitors.
In 2018, Southern Xpeditions’ first Overland Challenge raised funds to help another veteran-focused organization, Team Overland, get more veterans outdoors. In 2019, Overland Challenge proceeds sent two female veterans on a 10-day all-inclusive overlanding trip to Costa Rica with Women Overlanding The World (WOTW). The 2020 Overland Challenge monies will be donated to the Wounded Warriors in Action Foundation.
In addition to the Overland Challenge, Southern Xpeditions also organizes local events, trail rides, and trail cleanups. Additionally, they help further the education of military and veteran members through off-road driving instruction and recovery expertise. “We don’t do this for accolades, we do this out of love for others,” Oursler states. “The sleepless nights, long days planning, and countless reroutes amidst this crazy world we live are all worth it to make a positive impact on someone’s life; that change is not temporary but for LIFE.”
Whether the focus is on photography or bringing the community together through trips and events, it is pretty clear that all three of these organizations are passionate about helping fellow veterans. And anyone can help these organizations. From donating dollars or products to giving gas cards, hotel points, or buying tickets to attend events, each gesture is greatly appreciated. All three entities are making a difference—one veteran at a time.
To learn more about any of these organizations, you can find them online or on social media.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the November/December 2020 print issue of Tread Magazine.