Participants in a Heroes’ Harvests hunt in Idaho engage in the ancient art of calling distant male turkeys, or toms, to locate them. This unique and exciting activity allows individuals to connect with nature and experience the thrill of the hunt. Meet Mitch Vazquez, a brave veteran who served in the United States Army for 11 deployments. Upon returning home to North Carolina, Mitch found it difficult to adjust to civilian life. Everyday situations, such as a spilled glass of milk, would trigger intense anger and frustration. Mitch was eventually diagnosed with adjustment anxiety disorder, a condition brought on by the stress of his military service. Group therapy sessions proved ineffective, leaving Mitch feeling lost and desperate for a solution. That’s when he decided to immerse himself in the great outdoors.
Raised in a military family, Mitch has always found solace in nature. Camping, fishing, and hunting were beloved pastimes that brought his family together. In the fall of 2018, Mitch embarked on a 26-day solo journey to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. This expedition served as a mental reset, providing the peace and tranquility he desperately needed. “The outdoors is a haven of calmness, free from triggers. It has truly helped me find inner peace and perspective,” Mitch shared. Unbeknownst to him at the time, there was a vast network of outdoor adventure programs specifically designed for veterans like himself. From hunting trips to rock climbing clinics, these programs offer therapeutic benefits for veterans struggling with PTSD and major depressive disorder.
Unfortunately, the number of veterans battling mental health issues continues to rise. Shockingly, 17 veterans die by suicide every day, according to the 2021 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report. PTSD affects 7 percent of all veterans, and 13 percent of female veterans due to the higher rates of military sexual trauma they experience. Additionally, veterans experience higher rates of substance use disorders and other mental health concerns compared to the general population.
The healing power of nature is nothing new. Ancient Greeks sought rejuvenation at natural springs, while 19th-century asylums incorporated gardens into their designs to aid in recovery. Soldiers returning from World Wars were prescribed horticulture therapy, and Army veteran Earl Shaffer famously thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail to find solace after war. Scientific studies have confirmed the positive impact of nature on our physical and mental well-being. Spending time in nature has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, blood pressure, and heart rate, while improving cognitive function and focus. As licensed professional counselor Patricia Hasbach explains, “Natural scenes activate our body’s natural relaxation response. It reminds us to trust ourselves and breathe deeply, resulting in an overall sense of well-being.”
While these recreational programs for veterans are commonly referred to as “outdoor therapy,” many do not involve trained clinicians. They range from simple activities like journaling in a lawn chair to multi-week expeditions. Chelsey Cook, a U.S. Army veteran and mountaineering guide, attests to the personal benefits gained from spending time outdoors. “Daily outdoor time enhances my physical and mental well-being, making me a better person for myself and those around me,” Cook shared. Hasbach refers to these experiences as “healing activities,” where individuals engage in therapeutic adventures facilitated by nature itself. For more structured therapeutic interventions, ecotherapy provides a clinical approach that combines the forces of the client, therapist, and nature. This intentional and directed experience helps individuals reconnect with their primal roots and find healing.
Veterans gravitate towards these outdoor programs because they offer a familiar sense of purpose, teamwork, and camaraderie. Traditional clinical settings may not resonate with all veterans or may be inaccessible due to distance or long wait times. Outdoor excursions tap into veterans’ strengths and provide a mission-driven environment where they can navigate risks and work together in a team. These activities renew their sense of purpose, which can often fade away during periods of transition or retirement.
David Havlick, a professor at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, has been studying outdoor programs for veterans for nearly a decade. He affirms that veterans frequently report improvements in their well-being after participating in these programs. Inspired by their own experiences, many veterans have founded nonprofit organizations to support fellow veterans. Mitch Vazquez, for instance, established Heroes’ Harvests in 2020 to lead veterans on outdoor adventures like hunting and fishing trips. These initiatives have gained support from the government, resulting in the passing of the Accelerating Veterans Recovery Outdoors Act. The act directs the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to evaluate the benefits of outdoor therapy and address any barriers to its implementation. The ultimate goal is to increase awareness and accessibility to these opportunities, making them more affordable and inclusive for individuals of all abilities and backgrounds.
While researchers have yet to identify the specific elements that make these activities beneficial, veterans frequently report reduced stress levels, improved home life, and decreased reliance on medication, alcohol, or drugs. Daniel Dustin, a Vietnam War veteran and outdoor recreation expert, emphasizes that the healing power of nature is difficult to quantify. It is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and the outcomes cannot be prescribed. However, the positive impacts are undeniable.
As more veterans advocate for outdoor therapy, the hope is that it will be recognized and integrated into existing mental health treatments. Josh Jespersen, a former Navy SEAL and co-founder of Veteran’s Outdoor Advocacy Group, stresses the importance of having outdoor therapy as a viable option for veterans. His organization aims to promote these outings on a systemic level, demolishing barriers and making them widely accessible. In doing so, awareness will grow, and more veterans will have the opportunity to find healing in the great outdoors.
In conclusion, the power of nature to heal is a timeless truth. Veterans who engage in outdoor programs and experiences often find solace, renewed purpose, and improved well-being. As the number of veterans struggling with mental health issues continues to rise, it is crucial to support and expand these initiatives. By integrating outdoor therapy into clinical practices and increasing accessibility, we can provide a lifeline to veterans in need. Let us never underestimate the transformative power of nature and its ability to restore peace and balance in our lives.
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Shambhu Kumar is a science communicator, making complex scientific topics accessible to all. His articles explore breakthroughs in various scientific disciplines, from space exploration to cutting-edge research.