SALT LAKE CITY — An Iraq War veteran struggling with life after war has created a way to help himself and other Utah veterans get their lives back on track.
"Climbing in the veteran community is what helped me get my life back on track," said Mike Cumming, who joined the U.S. Marine Corps three days after high school graduation.
It takes energy, determination, trust and problem-solving to rock climb, he said.
"There's something about climbing that's not like anything else," Cumming said.
Rock climbing is an individual challenge that demands trust in the person at the other end of the rope. It also demands all of your attention, Cumming said.
"You have to focus so much on what you're doing that it takes your mind off of everything else," he added.
And that's therapy for Cumming.
When he got home from multiple deployments in Iraq and left active duty, he struggled with wounds from an improvised explosive device explosion and post-traumatic stress disorder.
"It got really bad," Cumming said.
Fellow veterans convinced him to get help at the Veterans Medical Center, where a counselor urged him to get back into climbing. His stress eased, and he started to trust again.
Cumming now shares his passion with other veterans. As a student at the University of Utah, he started Operation Climb On in August. It's a nonprofit organization that offers an eight-week, therapeutic rock climbing course to veterans and their families. The instructors who work with him are veterans too.
Warren Young is an Iraq War veteran who met Cumming while he was a student at the University of Utah. Young said he loves spending time outside hiking, snowboarding and camping. He tried rock climbing and fell in love it.
"It's going to help veterans everywhere," Young said. "It's a great way to feel good about yourself."
Young and Chris Johnson went climbing with his instructors at a popular wall in Draper. In the midst of the exercise and focus was a lot of camaraderie, friendship and good-natured ribbing.
"I think it's a great asset," said Johnson, who deployed to Afghanistan with the Army Reserve in 2009. "I think more veterans should come do it."
"This means the world to me," Cumming said of his rock climbing passion. "I'm more passionate about doing this than anything in my life."
Nearly 1,000 veterans attend the University of Utah, which honored Cumming as its Student Veteran of the Year for his work developing the climbing program. He graduated in December with a bachelor's degree in adventure and outdoor programs and began a master's in parks, recreation and tourism this spring.
"There's just something about being able to help my brothers and sisters," Cumming said.
The University of Utah is taking nominations for the Student Veteran of the Year in 2015. The school is also asking for the public's help in honorees for its annual Veterans Day ceremony Nov. 11. Nominees can be a veteran of any war.