I’ve been a soldier the whole of my adult life, in a military intelligence role that has taken me all over the world, including five tours to Iraq and Afghanistan, and deployments in South Korea, Turkey, Tunisia and beyond.
My time with the military saw me live in at least eight different countries and set foot in dozens more. Through global secondments with NATO, the Pentagon, the National Security Agency and the Defence Intelligence Agency, I ended up in some interesting places. So it was a difficult decision to finally retire after a 26-year career with the United States Army.
Despite my globetrotting, I’ve never really travelled in the true sense of the word. During my time with the army, I was never intentional about exploring new destinations as I was always so focused on the mission at hand.
Fellow retired soldiers advised me to take some time out post-career
I did have the odd day off here and there to go sightseeing with some of my colleagues on base. And I experienced elements of adventure during my stints with more combat-oriented units. But generally that meant marching with a bunch of gear on my back or camping out in the middle of nowhere, having not showered for several days.
It’s a very different approach to Flash Pack’s Croatia trip, which I joined on a whim several weeks before I officially retired. Time and again, fellow retired soldiers advised me to take some time out post-career, rather than jump straight into a new job. They all suggested pausing for six months or so to reflect and try new things.
So I booked the Flash Pack adventure as a precursor to that time out – a sort of test run. I wanted to create an inflection point between my old life and what came next. It was my first time traveling as a civilian and as a solo person in a group environment, so I approached it as a bit of an experiment.
The organised element of group travel appealed to me
I wouldn’t say Croatia was necessarily on my bucket list. I had, however, worked with a couple of Croatian NATO members in Turkey and speaking to them had piqued my interest in visiting.
The organized element of group travel also appealed to me. I welcomed the idea of having a custom-made list of activities to follow, with my only role being to enjoy and savor those experiences. It would allow me to be present in a destination, with a kind of reflective mindset that I appreciate more now that I’m in my forties.
However, I definitely had some anxiety on the run up to the trip. For one, I was the only male in a group of ten women. I was concerned about upsetting the dynamic. But once I had the chance to meet everyone in person, they were super-nice, and reassured me I was an equal part of the group.
Unexpectedly, I found my military experience helped me on the trip
Our Pack Leader, Tomislav, was fantastic, too. He had a very calm demeanor and he helped to create this collegial environment in which everyone got along well together. It was clear from the outset that we were all independent people with our own successful careers. And yet, we shared this sense of friendliness and openness that connected us together in the moment.
Unexpectedly, I found my experience in the military helped me to play a role in smoothing over group dynamics, too. I’ve spent more than 20 years caring about how groups of diverse people get along in some of the most stressful environments imaginable.
Any issues in the Flash Pack group was child’s play by comparison. There were just a few moments when someone risked being left out or a passing comment was misread. But, with my skillset, I found I could step in to ease those situations before they escalated.
White water rafting along the Mrežnica river was great
Activities-wise, everything we did in Croatia was incredible. There wasn’t a single day in the week that I didn’t enjoy. The sunrise walk around Plitvice Lakes National Park was a highlight. There’s this wooden walkway that connects between a series of pristine waterfalls, and the wild beauty of it really moved me.
White water rafting along the Mrežnica river was another great experience. We got to enjoy the landscape from a unique perspective. Later on in the trip, we cycled along the coastal peninsula to a winery in the village of Trstenik. We also stopped at an agritourism farm and learned to cook a meal using a local family recipe. From Adriatic oysters to Strukli (filo pastry appetizers from the Zagreb region), I tried some of the best food I ate during my time in Croatia.
It was an honor to serve in the US Army for so long and I’ll always think of myself as a soldier – it’s a core part of my identity. At the same time, Croatia was an opportunity to step away from that chapter of my life and reflect on a core level with who I am and how I want to engage with the world.
This new way of travelling has got me thinking
It’s never easy to switch off completely, especially when you’re coming from such an immersive and stressful job. But I’d recommend solo group travel for anyone at a similar transition point in life. It’s therapeutic to be able to disengage and start to see people and places in new ways.
We often connect with people most during moments of intense vulnerability and transition, like in the first weeks of school of university. For me, group travel with people in the same age group meant we could all calibrate our experiences and share our vulnerabilities. It’s such a great way to make new connections.
I’m still not entirely sure what I want to do next. But this new way of traveling has got me thinking: where in the world I would like to wake up every day? What kinds of cultures and communities do I want to be surrounded by? I’m single, I don’t have kids and I specialize in cybersecurity, all of which means I can be fairly flexible.
I finally discovered the real joy of travel
At the moment, I’m leaning towards a city in Europe. But wherever I end up, I like the idea of being guided by a sense of place, and how I interact with the world, in making my choice. It’s a shift in perspective that started when, after years of putting it off, I discovered the joy of travel.
Charles Hood is a former US military intelligence officer who traveled with Flash Pack to Croatia.
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Images: courtesy of Charles Hood and Flash Pack.