Today's guest blog comes from veteran Elizabeth Kennedy. Thank you Elizabeth for the courage to share your story!
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”
― John Muir
A couple of hospitalizations, outpatient programs, weekly therapy appointments, medication after medication, suicide became an attractive alternative, not because I wanted to die, rather I wanted the symptoms to end. I did not want to live, yet I did not want to die. So much fear in both places, being torn, simply existing.
I was becoming my own worst enemy, thinking about it all the time, fearful of a trigger in a public place; I became a recluse, a prisoner in my own home. My PTSD issues are not all service-connected, complex trauma they call it for female veterans. According to national statistics, one in three women has experienced a violent crime. So I am a statistic in both categories, considering becoming a third in the suicide category.
When I came to this place, I had a choice, to live or die. I decided to live. Sure, it may mean more pain, actually dealing with it, rather than medicating and drinking my problems away, I found no answers at the bottom of my pill and beer bottles. No one was going to do my healing for me, so while “existing” in Texas, I found a Colorado cabin on the Internet bordering the national forest, packed my stuff, and here I am.
I found my sanctuary, got my boots, got my pack, grabbed my dogs, and set off for the woods. I got out of my head and into my body. Working with my therapist and my primary care physician, I started making tremendous strides; each mile I hiked I put my past further behind me. If I felt anxiety, depression, I took a hike, letting my natural endorphins kick in, each day growing physically, mentally, and psychologically stronger, restoring my confidence.
My place is out in BFE, I heat my cabin with a wood stove, and I got back to nature and basic survival because if I got snowed in, all I could do was rely on myself. I worked on my property, prepared for winter, and hiked, no longer just existing, but living again, healing outdoors. Getting out of my mind and into my body in nature was the best decision I ever made, I chose to make an “active” recovery!
Hard to believe I never left my house, looking at where I am at today. As Muir wrote, nature did help me heal and I am growing stronger every day in every way because of the outdoors. It is hard to think about the past when hiking or snowshoeing, because you are in the present moment, heart beating with exertion, finding your natural rhythm, pole, shoe, pole, shoe. Just taking in the beauty around me as I trek through the woods, how do I get over to that rock face, hey look, deer, turkey, elk, rabbits, now this is living!!!
Crowds, traffic, noises, none of that bothers me now, no more anxiety attacks, no more flashbacks, nothing in my way now! I had the help of many along the way; I enrolled in the VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation program. My VA employment Coordinator, Jason Shireman, came up with a brilliant plan for me. Working with Troy Fuhrman, Facilities Manager at the National Park Service we set up a Non-Paid Work Experience Internship as part of the VA’s Coming Home to Work Program. This was an excellent transition for me to get back into the workforce, receiving training and applying my existing skills sets with the outdoors as my office!
I met Jeff Wolin, Lead Interpreter at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument and learned about their Post to Parks program, a fantastic grass roots strategy to connect the military community to the outdoors. As a Park Service Volunteer/VA NPWE representative, I attended Fort Carson and VA events with several hundred people, meeting and connecting with others, that was a milestone for me while helping others.
Working as an advocate for this outstanding program, working with Operation Warfighter Active Duty Service Members, I got my life back. My past no longer holds my present captive!!! There was a light at the end of the tunnel, I had to go through it, deal with my stuff and for me the tunnel was the outdoors and I came out on the other side. Now the baggage I have is my backpack!
Healing does not have to only take place in an office, there are alternatives. The Sierra Club and Post to Parks have so many opportunities for our military community to make a choice in our healing journeys. I am just one of many whose lives have changed because of connecting with the outdoors. We have a choice, chose to get outside, put on those boots, grab your gear, and get out of your head and into your body!
Elizabeth Kennedy is an OIF/OEF Army veteran currently enrolled in the VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation Program. She is an enthusiastic and motivated veteran, sharing her experiences to motivate and inspire while working with Post to Parks program to actively engage the military community to experience the healing benefits of our public lands.
For more information:
"Helping America's Military and Veteran Community experience the freedom of the land they defend"