Wilderness Therapy and Healing the Wounds of War

Watch this beautiful video, and try not to cry. I dare you.

There’s something about the power of wilderness to heal the wounded soul. From PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder, a debilitating condition that plagues many veterans) to physical ailments like traumatic brain injury, spending time in the great outdoors can provide a great healing force.

The Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors program aims to connect active military and veterans through backcountry adventures. It may seem intuitive that time in the outdoors can heal, but the Sierra Club is taking this work one step further. In partnership with the University of California Berkeley, they are collecting data on their veteran adventurers so that they can quantify how vets get better. The ultimate goal is to use this data to persuade the Veterans’ Administration to provide funding for nature-based therapy for wounded warriors.

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I really enjoyed this story of a group of vets undergoing a sweat lodge ceremony to release past traumas and visions of horror. From my own experience with the sweat, I know this can be a very powerful tool — one among many.

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Here’s another great video, this one from Outward Bound for Veterans. This program works with the reality that adjusting back to “normal” life after the intensely bonding teamwork of deployment can be a process of grieving. These adventures for veterans and active duty servicepeople are one way to bring back some of that missing sense of belonging.

Here’s something that’s not okay in any way, shape, or form: “More soldiers have died from self-inflicted wounds than service members died in combat between 2002 and 2013.” That horrifying fact comes from this recent High Country News feature on wilderness therapy for vets which also notes that in 2010, 6,000 vets committed suicide … 20 percent of all U.S. suicides.The V.A. mental health system is overwhelmed, and may not have access to the best tools for healing soldiers. According to a recent survey, one-third of veterans with PTSD or traumatic brain injury stop going to treatment, and another one-third never go to be treated in the first place. Clearly, our veterans need access to more meaningful healing opportunities than that which the federal government can currently provide.

That’s why it’s so important for civilian society to step up. As with Sierra Club Outdoors and Outward Bound for Veterans, the Wounded Warrior Project’s Project Odyssey provides a series of nature-based odysseys to help vets in “overcoming adversity and finding the way home.” Project Odyssey’s goal is to help veterans struggling with combat stress move beyond it to reconnect with society and family.

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Veterans Expeditions, or VetEx, brings veterans into the mountains for training in mountaineering skills and camaraderie with fellow vets. Although they are a small organization, they are able to bring several hundred vets a year on their expeditions, according to this National Geographic article about them.

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These and other programs are a great start. They are doing incredible work, and their reach will expand to more and more veterans who need their help. There is a large population in need, and so more programs are needed … who else wants to start a wilderness therapy program for vets?

[Featured photo and all videos and photo credit goes to the above linked articles and websites.]

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