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COMING HOME: How Nature Programs Offer Peace, Healing to Veterans and Families

Originally published on the Children and Nature Network Blog

Getting outside makes coming home from war easier for our military service members, veterans, and their families. Even if returning service members do not have a physical or mental health injury, most, families or veterans, will still struggle with coming back into their families or society to a routine which is very different from war.

DSC_0581-1024x680The level of struggle will vary between families and individuals, but outdoor activities can be universally applied for all individual veterans, military families and especially children, for ensuring success in integration, employment, and education. Outdoor activities may take on additional importance for those returning with physical or mental health injuries that require adaptations due to a loss or limited use of a limb or traumatic brain injury.

We know from repeated testimony that increased confidence, family and social connections, learning how to live with a new physical adaptation, improved mental health, and even recovery from addiction, are attributed to time spent in the outdoors by veterans and military families.

Unfortunately, children, spouses, and caregivers are often forgotten. While one parent is deployed, children, spouses, and caregivers all take on different roles than when the military parent was at home. These roles can be difficult to relinquish or redefine when a parent comes home.

The outdoors provides an opportunity for kids to be just kids and for families to reconnect. Children can see in the outdoors that just because Mom or Dad may be missing a hand, Mom or Dad can still be an active participant in their childhood.

The National Military Family Association’s Operation Purple Camps and RetreatsOutward Bound for Veterans, the Wounded Warrior Project’s Project Odyssey, and the collaborative effort between 4H offices and National Guard and Reserve families that created Operation Military Kids, alongside the YMCA and several adaptive sports programs located at different winter and summer resorts, set the standard early on for outdoor recreation programs. Families and veterans can find opportunities through 125+ organizations, and that number is increasing, that cover the spectrum from afternoon picnics to multi-day expeditions.Programs like the collaborative agency and organization effort, Celebration of the Military Child Outdoors helps, on a community level, to connect local outdoor organizations with the local military and veteran community family. It is an outgrowth of a years long partnership between The National Military Family Association and Sierra Club to shift to a low cost, high impact partnership with more than 20 other organizations, the National Park Service, and United States Forest Service.

Demond-on-belay-225x300Some programs, like Higher Ground and Project Sanctuary include a deliberate therapeutic component. Others, like Project Healing Waters and Veterans Expeditions, argue that time in the outdoors, fly fishing or climbing respectively, inherently provide the therapy. Most programs fall somewhere in between. Increasingly, programs are finding ways to collaborate to save on resources and maximize impact.

Project Rebirth’s Resiliency in the Outdoors program, being led by US Army MAJ Aaron Leonard in his free time, aims to prove to military commanders that outdoor activities shouldn’t just happen after deployments, but when done before service members head overseas can improve mental health resiliency and expand on traditional leadership skills.

MAJ Leonard’s work is helping to shift the context of the outdoors for the military and veteran community from something nice to do if you have the time and the resources, to an integral, fundamental part of being a healthy soldier or veteran. If a day hike, or family picnic can provide the mental health relief and confidence building needed to find a job or get through a rough day at work or school, even if that work is combat, it should, and is, being prioritized. The positive implications this will have on outdoor recreation in general should not be discounted.

The Department of Interior has stepped up to make accessing public lands easier by offering free America the Beautiful passes While the Sierra Club’s Mission Outdoors ensures long term, repeat engagement outside for families, kids, and adults before or after they experience multi-day opportunities.

Across the spectrum however, we need to better tell our story and enlist the support of media outlets and not just those focused on outdoor recreation. Specialty magazines are great, but the outdoors and outdoor activity needs to become part of our total cultural landscape not just the reprieve of flannel and plaid wearing adventures normally profiled in outdoor magazines. Hand in hand with improved story telling, we need to significantly expand the body of research that shows with data, what we know through testimony to be true about the value of the outdoors.

The great news about military families, veterans and the outdoors is that it is an easy way for everyone to help and get involved. Next time you go on a hike, invite a veteran or military family!


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