A Salute to Outdoor Programs Helping Wounded Veterans

Walk Off the War participants prepare to hike the AT

Walk Off the War participants prepare to hike the AT

In honor of Veterans Day, we’re re-posting this piece from earlier in the year….

Feeling confused and depressed, WWII veteran Earl Shaffer told a friend in 1948 that he was going to “walk off the war.” That May, Shaffer set off to hike from Georgia to Maine, and four months later he became the first person to complete the entire Appalachian Trail.

There’s a long history of veterans finding solace in the outdoors, and people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are following in Shaffer’s footsteps. This spring, 13 veterans began an AT thru-hike as part of the Walk Off the War program, which launched in 2011. In the past decade, hundreds of outdoor programs have emerged to help U.S. veterans recover from physical and emotional wounds.

“There’s something like 25,000 non-profits serving veterans right now, and there are about 300 that do things outdoors,” says Chad Spangler, national director of the Outward Bound Veterans program.

Spangler and other experts say that outdoor recreation has proved to be especially effective in treating veterans, and a wide variety of programs have emerged, from 6-month treks on the AT to one-day bike rides. In the last couple of years, veterans’ outdoor programs have also become more sophisticated by developing partnerships to broaden their reach and researching how nature and adventure affect war injuries.

Veterans and experts shared with us thoughts on why outdoor recreation is so helpful for veterans with physical and emotional wounds.

Time and Space to Think

While some outdoor programs for veterans are just daylong outings, some can stretch for several days, weeks or months. Many veterans say these longer journeys are particularly effective.

“The great thing about the Walk Off the War program is you’re on the AT for six months, with long periods of solitude and nothing to do but think,” says Sean Gobin, a former Army officer and veteran of the Iraq war. He and another veteran, Mark Silvers, created the program after they hiked the AT and realized how beneficial it was. “Your mind processes experiences and memories, whether you want it to or not, and you come to terms with a lot of things that you can put away.”

Veterans Expeditions participants with Conrad Anker

Veterans Expeditions participants with Conrad Anker

A Sense of Camaraderie

Outdoor programs also help wounded veterans make the difficult transition from military life to the civilian world, says Spangler of Outward Bound. Former service members often miss the camaraderie they enjoyed in their military units, and they long to be around people who can understand what they experienced during war.

“One of the big issues veterans face is a sense of isolation,” says Spangler. To address this, most outings programs group veterans together, so they can share common experiences during a trip and gain a sense of belonging. “The overwhelming response we get to these courses is about the camaraderie,” says Spangler. “They love the fact that they’re with other veterans who understand their life experience.”

The veterans also get the opportunity to once again be part of a team, says Conrad Anker, a climber and athlete with The North Face who helped the non-profit organization Veterans Expeditions take 11 wounded service members ice climbing this spring. Climbing is an ideal activity for the veterans because it’s team oriented like the military, Anker told us.

“We were still dealing with an adversary, but it wasn’t a combatant. It was the environment,” says Anker, explaining that the veterans on their trip worked together on essential tasks such as organizing equipment and preparing for bad weather. “Building that together was a key component to it,” he says. “When we were watching out for each other and motivating each other, that emotion was really important for them.”

Soldiers to Summits leads veterans on climbing expeditions

Soldiers to Summits leads veterans on climbing expeditions

A Mission in Life

Adventure outings also appeal to veterans because they replicate a sense of being on a mission, says Mike Kirby, a former member of the Special Operations Command who is now with Exum Mountain Guides in Jackson, Wyo. “The whole process of climbing is very similar to what I did in the military,” he says. “Everything from preparation and checking equipment, to approaching the climb, which is like hitting the target on the objective. It’s all very familiar, except I’m not out hurting people, but doing something that I’m passionate about.”

The concept of having a mission in life is especially important for veterans suffering badly from depression, says Charley Mace, a guide for Soldiers to Summits, an expedition program offered by the non-profit NoBarriers.org. “With TBI and PTSD, there are a lot of guys who can’t get off the couch,” says Mace, adding that climbing expeditions have helped veterans improve their bodies and minds significantly. “It might be a person getting the confidence to go on a job interview, or lose 40 pounds,” he says. “And I’m pretty certain that there are people who didn’t commit suicide because of our program.”

Adaptive equipment helps veterans on Wounded Warrior rides

Adaptive equipment helps veterans on Wounded Warrior rides

Good for All Ability Levels

Naturally, some veterans aren’t as physically or emotionally strong as others, but another advantage of outdoor recreation programs is that they can be suited for all ability levels. About five years ago, Wounded Warrior Project transformed its fundraising bike rides into daylong outings that would attract more veterans who were sedentary due to injuries. “For a lot of them, this is their first activity since their injury,” says O’Donnell, adding that Wounded Warrior Project leads shorter bike rides in and around a particular city for less-experienced veterans, while “challenge rides” that stretch up to 100 miles cater to experienced veterans.

Before the participants ride, experts fit them with bikes and teach veterans with physical injuries to use adaptive equipment. “A program should teach the veterans a new skill,” says O’Donell, adding that wounded veterans can gain more freedom by learning to use equipment and prosthetics, or by being more in tune with their injured bodies.

Outdoor Programs Conduct Important Research

In the last year or so, organizations have begun conducting research to understand better veterans’ physical and emotions wounds, and how outdoor recreation helps with the healing process.

“We know anecdotally from participants that outdoor experiences have been vital to their reintegration,” says Stacy Bare, director of the Sierra Club Mission Outdoors program. He noted that in the past five years, the Sierra club has taken about 50,000 veterans outdoors through its Military Families and Veterans Initiative, its Our Wild America program and local outings throughout the country. But the Sierra Club wants to better understand exactly how and why the outdoors helps wounded warriors.

In 2012, the University of Michigan surveyed about 80 veterans who participated in multi-day wilderness outings with the Sierra Club. The goal was to see how the natural environment affected the mental health of veterans. “The general trend is that there was a lasting impact on their well-being,” says Jason Duvall, a researcher with the University of Michigan.  “There were improvements to their mood, their life outlook, and social functioning,” he says, adding that veterans with the most severe psychological problems showed the greatest level of improvement.

Outward Bound is working with The Warrior Institute in Reddick, Fla., to study how PTSD affects veterans physically during wilderness trips. Another Florida organization, Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge, is focusing on the physical challenges of amputees and veterans with other physical wounds. This summer it will take amputee veterans mountaineering in Alaska, rafting in the Grand Canyon, and SCUBA diving in Key West, Fla., to improve development of orthotics and prosthetic limbs.

Outward Bound veterans on a Southwest rafting trip

Outward Bound leads veterans on a Southwest rafting trip

A Different Perspective

While may people picture a wounded veteran as a person with a prosthetic leg or arm, many service members suffer from less visible emotional trauma.

Since 2001, more than 2,700 members of the U.S. military have killed themselves, and about 22 commit suicide every day, according to a May 2013 report in The New York Times. More that 337,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to a study by the RAND Corp., and the Defense Department has diagnosed at least 233,000 veterans with traumatic brain injury (TBI) since 2001. Various sources report that in the past decade, PTSD and TBI have triggered depression in half a million veterans.

For Navy veteran Justin Haug, depression took hold in 2008 when he returned home from deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa.

“When I came home, I became an alcoholic and was going down the wrong path, getting into a lot of fights and being really reckless,” said Haug. “It was so bad, I would fill up a Camelbak with Jack Daniels and Coke and drink that while I was working out and running.”

But in the past couple of years, the outdoors has helped Haug turn his life around. During trips to Yosemite and other National Parks he has worked through emotions, and this spring he had a revelation while rafting in Canyonlands National Park with the Outward Bound Veterans Program.

“I began to see the person I want to be, and I realized this life is short and I only have one life to live it,” he says. Somehow, the vastness and the beauty of the outdoors helped Haug see a new reality, and he and his fellow veterans benefited from sharing their military experiences. “I talked to a veteran who was thinking about ending his own life, and he said our talks on the trip had saved him from wanting to do that, and he’s grateful that he went on the trip,” said Haug. “I think every veteran in that trip got something out of it.”

Outward Bound first launched trips for veterans in 1983, but back then it only did a couple of trips a year for 10 to 20 people. This year it will take 600 to 1,000 veterans on trips. According to Haug, Outward Bound instructors do a good job of using the outdoors as a classroom to provide a new perspective, and Haug described such a moment toward the end of the Outward Bound trip.

“Each of us picked up a small rock that spoke to us, and we shared what the rock meant to us,” says Haug. “For me, it was knowing there are things in the past I’m not proud of.”

When Haug’s boat reached the confluence of the Green River and Colorado River, his guide explained that Native Americans would cast stones into water to project a certain future. For a few moments, Haug gazed at the swirling river, clutching the rock. And when his mind finally settled, he tossed the stone into the river, and let the river roll on.

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