Coming home from a war zone is a shock to the system for many veterans. A walk in the woods not only helps ease the transition, but it's also downright therapeutic.
The transition from military life to a civilian existence can be difficult. Veterans are more likely to be suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and substance abuse than civilians.
We spoke to several people working to make that transition easier through programs that focus on taking vets into the great outdoors.
Robert Vessels’ story unfortunately isn’t an unusual example of vets returning home and then turning to drugs and alcohol. After serving in Iraq, he retired from the U.S. Army in 2009. Six months after getting home, he was drinking heavily and felt suicidal. "I spiraled into a pretty low depression," he says.
But Vessels found respite when he moved to California and started hiking California's green spaces and surfing the Pacific. "I really got hooked on it," he says. "I had such a hard time finding something meaningful. This has done it, and I've seen that through so many others."
In 2013, Vessels enrolled in the University of California, Berkeley. "I had no idea what I wanted to do," he says. "I knew I didn't want to carry a gun. My plan B was park ranger."
He soon discovered the school's Great Outdoors Lab, researching the connection between time spent outdoors and one's physical and mental health, and started working for the Sierra Club.
Vessels is now program manager of the Sierra Club's Military Outdoors program. He says the organization has worked with veterans for more than a century. "The first Sierra Club outing was when John Muir took Teddy Roosevelt into the Yosemite wilderness," says Vessels. "Teddy was a veteran. As a result of that trip, Yosemite National Park was born. "
And David Brower, the first executive director of the Sierra Club, served in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II. Army veteran Stacy Bare, who hired Vessels, has brought the conservation conversation into the new millennium as director of Sierra Club Outdoors.
"That was all news for me when I got this job," says Vessels.
"Growing up in Texas and serving in the military, I thought the Sierra Club were a bunch of granola-eating tree-huggers. That isn't the case at all."
The Sierra Club launched Military Outdoors in 2006 and began running free guided expeditions for vets in 2012. They've organized whitewater trips in the Grand Canyon and southern Utah, mountaineering expeditions in Wyoming's Wind River Range, and fly-fishing trips in Yellowstone.
In 2017, the focus is changing and trying to create groups that organize trips and conservation efforts closer to home. The big trips are "awesome, but it's not accessible to a lot of people," says Vessels. "When I started [in 2015], we focused on creating regional groups throughout the country."
Lornett Vestal, Military Outdoors program coordinator for the Southeast, was the first regional hire. As the curriculum included outings closer to home, the number of participants more than doubled to 450 in 2016.
Vestal relates his own story. He left the Navy in 2005 and went to Northern Illinois University. "There's no way to process everything you saw," says Vestal, who struggled with depression and insomnia after coming home.
Experiences at sweat lodges and in the outdoors helped him with the transition, but it took years. He was prescribed pharmaceuticals in 2013.
"I realized I needed to go a more natural route and get outdoors."
Lornett Vestal, Military Outdoors program coordinator
He started going to the lakefront in Chicago, then moved to Atlanta with his now-wife in 2015, where he joined Military Outdoors as regional coordinator for Georgia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. "I see the impact it has with vets getting together with other vets," says Vestal.
Military Outdoors' distinction is its emphasis on creating groups that will go on several outings a year together. With other programs, Vessels says, "Once it's done, you go home," says Vessels. "We offer an opportunity to follow along with trips and conservation efforts."
It all comes back to helping veterans adjust to civilian life. "I believe it gives vets a new mission and a new purpose," says Vessels. "I see it as an extension of our service."
Vessels says he expects the program to grow "exponentially" in 2017 and beyond. The program has trained more than 60 volunteers since late 2016 and the plan calls for more regional hires.
Craig Anderson conducted research for the Great Outdoors Lab while he worked on his Ph.D at Cal. Now a postdoctoral researcher at University of California, San Francisco, Anderson studied "the emotion of awe" under Dacher Keltner while in Berkeley.
Anderson conducted surveys, filmed participants with GoPro cameras, and collected saliva samples to test hormone levels from about 150 participants from 2014 to 2016. He's aiming to publish the study's findings later in 2017.
"We've confirmed that being in the outdoors is good for people," says Anderson.
"Going on a rafting trip, even for one day, has an impact on happiness, life satisfaction, PTSD symptoms, even a week later, sometimes longer."
Craig Anderson, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of California, San Francisco
"It seems like the awe people feel in the outdoors is uniquely related to the benefits of being outdoors," says Anderson, noting that awe has a bigger impact than other emotions, including amusement or gratitude. "It might be the case that awe makes people's problems seem smaller."
But finding awe might be more difficult for vets who have spent most of their recent time outdoors in war zones.
While serving a second tour as a Navy medic in Afghanistan, Jeremy "Jet" Garner lost some function in his right arm due to shrapnel. In 2011, he was diagnosed with PTSD. "2011 was probably my worst year," says Garner. "I got sent home with all of my friends still deployed. It totally sucks. I developed a drinking problem. I developed a fighting problem."
He got into therapy before the end of the year and retired from the Navy in 2012. Five years later, he's much improved. "Arm is still messed up, but the brain is a lot better," he jokes.
Part of that recovery has been from getting outside. Garner enrolled at Cal in 2015, and met some fellow veterans who invited him on a Military Outdoors rafting trip on the American River in California in 2015. "We were just having fun," says Garner of the trip. "We weren't regurgitating war stories."
Many veterans grew up hiking, camping, and hunting, he adds, but military experience can challenge one's notion of nature.
"The outdoors get changed a lot. Wars are not fought inside."
Jeremy "Jett" Garner, Navy veteran
Since then, he's spent a lot of time hiking and walking, and plans to spend about six months hiking the Pacific Coast Trail after he graduates in May 2017.
"It's the best way for me to relax and recover from strenuous intellectual activity," says Garner. "That's my centering approach now: nature."
Military Outdoors is not the only program that's discovered the outdoors are especially therapeutic for veterans. Based in Salida, Colorado, Veterans Expeditions for example is a veteran-led nonprofit that organizes numerous hiking, climbing, and fishing trips every year.
Outward Bound for Veterans is another program with a mission to connect veterans with the outdoors. "The program has roots in 1983," says Chad Spangler, the organization's Colorado-based national director. Former Green Beret Bob Rheault "thought the outdoors would be really good for people dealing with posttraumatic stress" and the Vietnam War veteran is credited with the program's launch.
"It's pretty simple," says Spangler. 'What we're trying to do is create some of the really positive aspects of military service in a civilian context."
"We don't want to do a vacation," he adds. "We want to do some work. We always talk about teaching through the wilderness, not for the wilderness."
Like Military Outdoors, this program also has solid medical evidence backing up the subjective experience of vets. A 2016 study by the University of Texas' David Scheinfeld collected data on mental health from 199 Outward Bound Veterans participants and 20 people on the waiting list.
"We had a clinically significant impact on mental health. It's on par with traditional mental health treatment."
Chad Spangler, Outward Bound for Veterans
Spangler cites decreases in depression and anxiety coupled with an increase in follow-through on treatment.
"More than anything, it's an opportunity for folks to reconnect," he adds. "For a lot of vets, they feel the skills they learned don't apply to civilian life. This is an opportunity to recognize those skills. Reconnecting to that strength and very fundamentally being challenged, you're reminded, 'I can do this.'"
Add awe-inspiring places and other people and you get a valuable experience. Participants "thought they were suffering in a bubble," Spangler notes. "They realize they're not alone in struggling with it."
"What we hear a lot is, 'That was the first time I really opened up and talked about my military experience with a civilian. That's a powerful moment for a lot of folks."
Chad Spangler, Outward Bound for Veterans
Outward Bound for Veterans' fully funded trips are six to eight days, ranging from "sailing in the Florida Keys to mountaineering in the Cascades," says Spangler. The program serves between 400 and 600 veterans annually and has a waiting list of about 100 veterans.
Ben Eichel provides another story of successful transition. After leaving the Army in 2014, he participated in a coastal canoeing trip with Outward Bound for Veterans to the Florida Everglades in 2016. "At that point, I was struggling with my transition," he says. He'd landed a good job with a manufacturer, but wasn't satisfied with the work. "The pay was great, but there really wasn't much purpose in it."
He adds, "I wasn't ready to be in civilian society—I was still in the military. I hadn't made that transition. I was extremely frustrated and irritable and didn't understand why."
The trip to the Everglades helped reinforce his decision to change careers as it "shattered the wall" between military and civilian life. "It got me to the point where I was really ready to be part of the real world," says Eichel.
As city impact manager for The Mission Continues in Denver, Eichel now connects veterans to volunteer and philanthropic opportunities in Colorado. "Without it, I don't know where I'd be right now."
"It was absolutely a life-changing experience," he says. "It was really about recovery and healing and moving on, but they didn't approach it that way. They provided a safe space for people to open up. I'd never had anyone do that."
Eric Detrick is one of the success stories from the Outward Bound for Veterans group. He served as an Army medic from 2003 to 2011, and was twice deployed to Afghanistan. After he got out, Detrick was "drinking a lot," he says. "I was isolated, abusing pills, white-knuckling it through things."
In 2012, he went on a week-long trip rafting through Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River in Utah. At the end of each day, the group would read from a book of notable quotes as a conversation starter. "Tears would come out," says Detrick. "It was good stuff."
He describes the trip as a "rejuvenation of the soul and the mind," adding, "For me, it was a huge soul-searching experience, figuring out what I wanted to do."
Detrick says the program demanded leadership and accountability from the participants. "That's why I think a lot of guys commit suicide: a lack of a sense of purpose."
After the trip, he ended up going to work for the Veterans Administration in Los Angeles to help fellow veterans with mental health and substance abuse.
Many of the lessons learned on the Colorado River have crept into his work at the VA. The status quo, says Detrick, "is very, 'Hop into this group room with no windows and we'll shut the door.'" He augments traditional group treatment by "getting out of those enclosed spaces" for golf trips or equine therapy sessions.
He tells a story from the outset of the Utah rafting trip that reflects the shift in perspective. The civilian guides had all of the veterans join hands with them in a circle. "At first, we were like, 'What are we doing? These guys are a bunch of hippies!'" says Detrick.
A week later, the perspective had changed. "At the end, we all agreed it was the best thing we could have done. I think we're all looking forward to the next one."
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