Congress is considering legislation to encourage “outdoor therapy” for veterans with injuries or post-traumatic stress. Volunteer groups are already running similar programs in national parks.
A group of military veterans and their family members spent a recent sunny day performing maintenance and cleanup work at Boca Chita Key, part of the Biscayne National Park.
They did it not just to help the park, but also to help themselves.
“Whatever they might be dealing with, it provides a positive outlet,” said Joshua Marano, an archeologist with the park and a veteran himself. “When we take 40 folks who are able-bodied, willing, and excited to help, they have an outlet for that energy.”
The military has had a long relationship with the nation’s parks. Before the National Parks Service was established in 1916, the military was charged with the care of public lands. More recently, veterans advocates and volunteer groups have promoted outings like the one at Biscayne, in which veterans repair park facilities, clear trees and debris, and perform other tasks. A growing body of research suggests those kinds of activities help veterans transition to civilian life.
“We know there is therapeutic value. We feel it in ourselves as human beings,” said Jacqueline Crucet, the Associate Director of the National Parks Conservation Association, a citizen advocacy group celebrating its centennial year. “Our veterans talk about it all of the time. ‘Walking the trail, walking off the war’ is a common phrase.”
“It is always easier to have a pill be paid for through insurance, VA or otherwise, than to have a park prescription recognized and valued as therapy,” she said. “It’s harder to talk about the intrinsic value national parks provide and put a dollar amount on it.”
A growing number of scientists are trying to quantify that value. Craig Bryan with the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah is doing studies where he takes veterans and active duty service members out into nature for two-week retreats. They wear Fitbits and other monitors to measure hormone levels and other vital signs, and therapists talk with the veterans every day about how they’re feeling.