Wilderness as therapist

A growing number of veterans and researchers are racing to understand nature’s power to heal.

 

One of the environmental movement’s most legendary characters was also a traumatized war vet. You might remember George Washington Hayduke for his inventive, destructive antics, but he was also a man who measured road miles by the number of six-packs it took him to drink while driving and whose mind often wandered back to Vietnam. “What’s more American,” Hayduke wonders in Edward Abbey’s novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, “than violence?”

The fictional Hayduke had a real-life model: a former Army medic named Doug Peacock. Peacock served in Vietnam during his 20s, and as he went through the violence of that war, the thing he carried was a map of the Northern Rockies. He brought it out during rare quiet moments and imagined himself in its contours, rolling over the sharp granite creases of the Wind River Mountains or the grassy meadows north of Yellowstone Lake. When he returned from the war, he returned to nature, studying grizzlies for several decades and fighting for their federal protection, as well as for that of other threatened species. These days, the 72-year-old activist and writer has become a new role model, not just for greens, but for a new generation of veterans.

“What they need to do is go out and immerse (themselves) in the wild,” he said recently. “Let it wrap around you. See what it does to you.”

The idea of wilderness as therapy for veterans is nothing new. In recent years, a growing number of such programs are springing up around it. But in order for it to work on the scale that’s needed, its supporters are going to have to get the military behind it. And that’s where the difficulty lies. 

 

A Veterans Expeditions group hikes Colorado’s Mount Elbert on Veterans Day.
Chris Kassar

There are some 21 million American veterans today, 4 million in the West alone, who have served in places from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan. Half of Iraq and Afghanistan vets have received mental health diagnoses including post-traumatic stress, which can lead to high rates of alcohol or drug abuse, domestic violence and suicide. In 2010, an estimated 6,000 vets committed suicide — on average 16 a day, and 20 percent of the U.S. total. More soldiers have died from self-inflicted wounds than service members died in combat between 2002 and 2013.

The federal Department of Veterans Affairs is supposed to help, but the agency seems overwhelmed. Treatment rates have improved in recent years, but 242,000 vets report not receiving treatment within four months of requesting it. The VA predicts it will treat 6.6 million vets in 2015.

A persistent lack of funding and increasingly common and hard-to-treat problems like traumatic brain injury have combined with bureaucratic red tape to breed distrust among veterans about the agency’s effectiveness. A national scandal last year, when it was revealed that the VA had exaggerated how quickly it was treating people, made things even worse. A recent survey showed that almost a third of veterans with PTSD or traumatic brain injury now drop out of treatment, citing lack of progress, and the same number never bother to ask for help. 

Meanwhile, a growing number of vets are finding ways to help themselves –– particularly in the wild. A leading proponent of this approach is Stacy Bare, a 36-year-old Iraq War veteran and the director of Sierra Club Military Outdoors, a prominent wilderness program for veterans. At 6-foot-7, broad-boned and with an impossibly deep baritone voice, Bare is an imposing figure, one who is inspiring to many service members finding their way through trauma. A climber, skier and mountaineer, who likes to end his emails with the message “Stay stoked!” Bare is well aware of the benefits of nature. 

“We know intuitively that outdoor recreation can provide a quantifiable mental health benefit,” he says. “But for policy and for funders, we have to make sure that we have strong monitoring and -evaluation behind it.”

That’s because, while there are a growing number of one-off partnerships between outdoor organizations and local VA hospitals, the VA as an entire agency is not fully on board with wilderness as therapy. And that’s because Bare and others can’t prove that it works. “Across the board, people haven’t done a good job showing the results,” he says. “We’ve done a lot of nice things for veterans, but what are the things that really work?”

 

Right now, there’s a wide range of existing wilderness programs for vets: The VA partner Wasatch Adaptive Sports gets them skiing and camping outside Salt Lake; Project Healing Waters takes them fly-fishing around the country; Idaho-based Higher Ground hosts eight-week sports camps for vets and their families; the Army’s own Warrior Adventure Quest teaches “alternatives to aberrant behavior,” such as paint ball, rock climbing and scuba diving. Outward Bound Veterans and Sierra Club Military Outdoors take hundreds of vets outdoors each year.  

But just because these kinds of programs appear to be working doesn’t mean that researchers understand how. And until that happens, it will be hard to create a coherent, officially sanctioned program, especially through the VA writ large.

“I think there’s interest, but there is not necessarily a national acceptance of adventure-based experiences within the VA,” says psychologist David Scheinfeld, director of research for Project Rebirth, a nonprofit that develops healing programs for first responders and vets, who recently became a post-doctoral fellow for the VA in Austin, Texas. “The VA needs data showing it’s effective, safe, that it’s worth -supporting.” 

Scheinfeld is working to provide that data. Last fall, in partnership with Outward Bound, he studied the psychological impacts of outdoor experiences for veterans. Though not yet peer-reviewed, that study is one of the closest examinations of the value of nature in treating war trauma. Scheinfeld observed how anxiety, sense of purpose and other health indicators changed for 199 vets before, immediately after and one month following an outdoor experience, such as mountaineering or backpacking for a week. The majority of veterans showed improvements, including increased willingness to seek professional help, lower rates of depression and enhanced feelings of social connection, though some of those changes tapered off after a month. 

This kind of research could also help assuage critics who say outdoor companies and guides stand to profit from more widespread programs. 

“The VA (is) very data-driven,” says Jennifer Romesser, a clinical psychologist at the Salt Lake VA, who helps run veterans outdoor programs. “That’s why this research is so important.”

 

Stacy Bare climbs Whale’s Tail in Eldorado Canyon State Park, Colorado. His first climbing experience on the Flatirons outside of Boulder, Colorado, in 2008, led the Iraq War veteran to become part of a movement to get other vets into the outdoors.
Chris Kassar

Stacy Bare and a growing number of “stoked” vets know this, so they are working hard to get the VA the data it needs to act. Bare is now helping with a three-year pilot study, bringing together Sierra Club Military Outdoors, Outward Bound, Project Rebirth and Georgetown University.

The study will gather groups of nine to 12 veterans and integrate therapeutic outdoor experiences with more traditional mental health treatment, testing the effects while researching ways to partner with local VA centers. (The first group will spend a week in April rafting Cataract Canyon in Utah with Outward Bound.)

As part of the three-year study, 37-year-old Josh Brandon, who served three tours in the Iraq War, is establishing research hubs in Washington state. Like Bare, Brandon is sold on nature as therapist. 

Brandon served as an infantry officer in the Army in his first tour in Iraq — “like the guys on TV, who are dirty, have rifles and are getting into street fights.” As an advisor to Iraqi forces in 2006, he saw civil war and ethnic cleansing in Baghdad. By the beginning of his third tour in 2009, he was drinking pretty hard, but by the end of it, he told me, “I came home with ‘death eyes.’ ”

He tried the VA, but at the clinic in Lakewood, Washington, he saw soldiers with amputated limbs and gruesome scars, and “it scared the shit out of me,” he recalled. It also convinced him that other vets needed help even more than he did. He started getting together with Army buddies, doing crash courses with a local mountain guide, and then going out on expeditions, where teamwork and goals created a positive space for recovery. On his first attempt to summit Mount Rainier, he ran into 60 mph winds and rock falls. It was, he says, “awesome.” Somewhere along the way, the death eyes went away. 

Brandon says his main goal remains getting vets the help they need. But he’s discovered an interesting fringe benefit: Not only can nature help vets, he says, but they can return the favor –– by helping nature. And a recent survey showed that 75 percent of post-9/11 war vets who live in Western states favor federal protection of public lands. Much like Hayduke, Brandon has become a warrior for the wilderness. And he’s not the only veteran who feels that way, he says: “I call it defending our land a second time.”