The Russell Senate Building on Capitol Hill in DC feels about as far away from the wilderness as one could get. I made my way down endless marble halls, past imposing double-doored conference rooms and offices to attend a panel discussion hosted by the Sierra Club with Project Rebirth, Outward Bound, Georgetown University and UC Berkley. The topic was the healing power of our country's wilderness areas and the case for harnessing that power to help Veterans face their physical and mental health challenges.
Led by the Sierra Club's Josh Brandon and Stacy Bare, the panelists made their case for an alternative therapuetic approach to the mental health crisis that is claiming the lives of 22 Veterans each day. As decorated Veterans, Josh and Stacy talked from first-hand experience about meeting the challenges that threatened to overwhelm them by getting out into the wilderness and finding comfort, healing and a way forward in their lives.
Fellow panelist Chad Spangler shared similar stories of Veterans having transformative experiences through Outward Bound's programs. Project Rebirth activist and retired NYC firefighter Tim Brown shared his experiences cycling through the countryside with traumatized and wounded Vets and and listening to them work through grief and trauma as they made their way through the countryside.
As the panelists told their stories, the mountain ranges, white water rivers and pristine deserts of our beautiful country began to feel a lot less far away. Each of the panelists shared their differentl experiences to make one point: our Nation's wilderness areas are precious not only because they are beautiful but because they hold huge potential power - the power to act as a catalyst for healing Veterans and other Americans who struggle with injury, grief and post-traumatic stress. Their plan is to work with Georgetown University to run a comprehensive multi-year study that will track the effects of a combination of wilderness adventure and group therapy on groups of Veterans created with the help of the VA and other mental health agencies. This study will provide extensive hard data and measurable outcomes that the partners fully expect to confirm the efficacy of using our country's wilderness to foster healing and build resilience. A similar effort will be made through University of California with other at risk groups.
I'm happy to report that the panel's audience responded with real excitement to the panel's program proposal - the one question that kept coming up was, "What can we do to help make this initiative happen?" Allies from both the Senate and the House approached the panelists at the end of the discussion to promise support. Harnessing that support and developing a plan of action with the VA are the vital next steps toward launching Project Cohort [are we using this title now?] this fall.