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.
The Trauma of Returning Home
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.
The Sierra Club: A History of Vets in the Outdoors
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.
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.
Growing Participation by Getting Out Closer to Home
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.
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.