Warriors in the wilderness

Programs get veterans outdoors to rebuild connections, coping mechanisms

Elizabeth Miller | Boulder Weekly

If the shocks in his prosthetic arm would reload faster, Marc Dervaes could spend all his evenings doing one-armed pushups. After losing his right arm just above the elbow in combat, Dervaes had a replacement prosthetic built with a set of shocks like those on a mountain bike. He wanted to go kayaking again.

Dervaes kayaked before his injury, and says his paddling abilities have increased since his so-called disability. Two and a half years ago, the now-retired Army sergeant first class who was injured in Afghanistan found Team River Runner, a kayaking group for Fort Carson’s soldiers transitioning back from combat. Just about every Friday he can be found at their pool sessions, teaching or boating with the soldiers who show up to learn kayak strokes and how to roll a boat. He’s seen other kayakers missing a leg, but never one missing an arm.

Dervaes is among a growing group of veterans who have turned to outdoor sports to fill in some of what civilian life leaves out. Kayaking, climbing, hiking and biking, often with a group of veterans, provides the camaraderie of a team and a thrill of activity.

The companionship, the routine and the activity may also be helping some veterans who are dealing with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries (TBI).

When Team River Runner started at Fort Carson, it was just Dervaes, but the numbers have grown to the point that the pool can get crowded. That means someone is always in close proximity when a boat flips and the call “boat over!” signals for someone to paddle over, bump nose to hull, and let that flipped boater grab the nose to pull himself back upright if his roll isn’t dialed yet.

“You get so involved in it, you almost forget that you’re injured,” Dervaes says. “That’s a huge start toward recovery. You’re almost in the, what’s the word, normalization of recovery. You’re no longer somebody who gets stared at as a burn survivor or an amputee or somebody that walks with a cane or somebody that has PTSD that doesn’t want to come out of the house.”

He says his only complaint with his prosthetic made for kayaking and mountain biking is the blistering that sometimes occurs where it vacuum seals to his residual limb. There’s probably more money in prosthetics in his house than the home actually cost, he says, but as he fingers the $7,000 titanium extension of his biceps and triceps, he says, “I like this one best.”

Team River Runner focuses on “getting butts in boats,” he says — get away from the game console and onto the water.

“I was an infantryman for 18 years and when I got blown up, we were in the middle of fighting, so adrenaline at that point was very high. You’re keyed up, and when that’s taken away from you, you don’t have an outlet anymore,” he says. “You’re sitting in a hospital room, you’re in a wheelchair, and I’m not going to say I’m an adrenaline junkie, but I lost that excitement.”

The fears now are different — it’s boulders instead of bullets — but Dervaes says he’s seen white water kayaking help service members who had a similarly abrupt disconnect from life in the military reintegrate into society.

Part of that has nothing to do with adrenaline: A rushing river is referred to as “combat” by boaters, and though it’s a rough analogy, there’s a translation from the battlefield — a veteran doesn’t go into combat in a river alone.

“What was once a unified team in combat is now another unified team,” he says. “Sometimes, down the river, you’re in combat, you know, it’s you against the river. And knowing that your teammates are in front of you and behind you is a great feeling. So if I wet exit, I know that somebody’s going to get my boat and most likely I’m going to be able to swim to the side. And it’s a support thing that a lot of these guys feed off of and enjoy. They miss it. They really miss it.”

Dervaes is working to combine forces now, bringing more attention to Team River Runner through his full-time occupation described as a part-time job: working as Colorado Springs area outreach coordinator for the Wounded Warrior Project.

Like some 15,259 other wounded soldiers, Dervaes’ introduction to the Wounded Warrior Project was a backpack of basic comforts like socks, gym shorts, phone cards and toiletries that met him in the hospital after he spent four days in a hospital gown being transported back from Afghanistan. Wounded Warriors, founded in 2002, provides programs to serve the mind, body, economic empowerment and engagement of military members who served after Sept. 11, 2001. One of the programs in their Combat Stress Recovery Program, Project Odyssey, uses nature-focused outdoor retreats to encourage connections to peers and to nature. Wounded Warriors reports that 93.4 percent of participants in their Project Odyssey programs say they came away with new coping skills for combat stress and recovery, and 91.5 percent of adaptive sports participants had sought out other sports or recreation opportunities. In 2006, there were five Project Odyssey retreats. This year, there will be 50.

“Acceptance is a hard thing, for a lot of these injured guys, that things aren’t going to be normal for a while, and the road to recovery is not fast and it’s going to have many obstacles, many challenges,” Dervaes says. “There’s a process, an entire healing process. I’m still healing and I got injured in ’09. I still have obstacles. I still have to manage meds. I have memory issues. But I use physical activity like this to put it away for a while.”

The mountains were a logical destination for Mike Kirby when he finished 12 years in the military — he enjoyed climbing before and was on the mountaineering team in the Army. After an early winter storm caught him on Longs Peak and he lost half his foot to frostbite, a friend made the call to Malcolm Daly, executive director of Paradox Sports, which runs adaptive rock and ice climbing trips, while Kirby was still heavily medicated. He started climbing with them, and credits Daly with making the biggest difference in his recovery.

“I just wanted to be with other people who were adapting to what they loved to do because of their disabilities,” he says. “I was going through the exact same thing. I wanted to get back into rock climbing because that was my passion.”

Paradox also provided a connection to other people who were adapting to living with a disability.

“It’s funny, since this has happened I feel like there’s people with disabilities and then there’s normal people. I get along better with people with disabilities I think just because we’ve gone through similar experiences,” Kirby says.

But before he was a climber adapting to having lost half a foot, he was, and will always be, a soldier who had done three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Just on its own, coming back to civilian life last summer was hard, he says. It’s still hard.

“I don’t really have any other way to relate to people because all my relationships have been with people in the military,” he says.

But like his time in the service, the outdoors provides a connection, a vocabulary, and a way to relate to other people.

It’s because veterans connect with veterans — people who understand what they went through, from any era — that Stacy Bare and Nick Watson founded Veterans Expeditions in 2010. The Boulder-based organization has taken veterans to the top of Longs Peak and the Grand Teton — on trips for veterans, led by veterans.

“Part of why I run Veterans Expeditions, part of why I’m here for sure, it’s my way of giving back to modern-day veterans who I didn’t serve with. It’s my way of giving back to the past veterans who I didn’t serve with,” says Watson, a former Army Ranger. “Veterans Expeditions is just purely my desire to see that veterans get the attention that they need.”

While there are a lot of organizations that serve veterans, he says, there can never be too many groups and people stepping in to help out veterans where Veterans Affairs has left off.

“My stance or Veterans Expeditions’ stance is, we’re not going to point fingers at the VA,” Watson says. “We’re just saying, there’s a tremendous amount of veterans falling through the cracks. The VA will admit that; anyone who’s involved with the situation will admit that. The problem is huge. The suicide statistics are absurd.”

An estimated 18 veterans commit suicide every day.

Rather than throw up their hands at a huge problem, he says, he and Bare decided to apply a $25,000 check Bare was given to getting veterans outside on a single trip. The project has grown from there.

Veterans Expeditions is for all veterans, from any war. Participants come along for casual hikes, and he and Bare assemble teams to tackle larger projects, like an upcoming trip to Mount Rainier.

They’re not a therapeutic organization, Watson says, but there’s a lot of therapy that seems to happen on their expeditions.

“There’s more therapy done on a Veterans Expeditions casual hike than is going on in most therapeutic settings that are trying to get veterans help, and the reason is because they feel comfortable, they just start talking to one another casually,” he says. “No one’s asking them prodding questions or leading questions. When it’s time for them to talk about something, they talk about it, and we listen. If that means stopping everything of what we’re doing, we listen.”

In therapeutic terms, the trip is the container; in advertising terms, it’s the gimmick for getting veterans together, Watson says. “And that’s all it’s about. It’s about vets getting together with other vets.”

He understands wilderness therapy on a “blue collar” level, he says, from two decades of working with wilderness outings and wilderness therapy programs.

Wilderness levels the playing field — it’s tough to hide in a group of your peers when you’re all climbing a mountain together.

“Veterans do a fantastic job, probably the best job of any population in the United States of getting by, of faking it, of not being at 100 percent,” he says. “When you’re struggling with posttraumatic stress or when you’re in that kind of depression, you’re not at 100 percent, you’re maybe at 50 percent. And these people, at 50 percent, get up, they go to work, they provide for their families. They just hold so much, they do so much, and they’re not functioning well and most of the public wouldn’t bat an eye to it, they don’t see it.”

But get a bunch of vets together outside in a group of vets, and it’s tough to hide.

“For whatever reason, the outdoors allows most folks, but for sure in the veteran community, space to relax, space to throw down their guard, space to just be themselves, maybe how they haven’t even been for some time,” Watson says. “I think it’s that dropping into that, or starting to feel that way again, that makes them realize, oh yeah, I actually do have a lot going on here that I probably do need to address at some point because I’m not who I used to be.”

PTSD is characterized by feelings of depression, anger, mistrust, panic and guilt, as well as violent behavior, physical pain, dizziness and trouble sleeping.

Fewer than half the soldiers who report symptoms of PTSD receive treatment for it, according to research released by Major Gary Wynn, a research psychiatrist with the Walter Reed Army Medical Institute of Research. And of those who do start a treatment plan, 20 percent to 50 percent leave before it’s completed. Wynn says that might come down to the feeling that the treatment will go on endlessly, according to a report in Stars and Stripes.

“That’s always the takeaway from anything therapeutic, right, is the understanding of this isn’t just a couple sessions that I can afford or want to pay for,” Watson says. “This isn’t just this temporary Band-Aid. This is the rest of my life. It’s not gonna go away.”

Successful treatment programs, veterans say, are ones that create a habit they’ll return to the rest of their life. Something they can do with family, friends or other veterans.

“Vets are not going to get better, feel better, by sitting still,” Watson says. “Usually the veterans I deal with, if they’re sitting still, they’re not doing well. For right or wrong or for whatever reason, I’ve seen the outdoors give people confidence, give them people to hang out with, so give them community, give them other vets, give them a sense of belonging, give them some self esteem, and help kind of get unstuck. They get stuck. I think we’ve all been stuck. I’ve been stuck. So it kind of gets things moving again.”

Those feelings push back against the feelings of inadequacy, of having an insufficient ability to cope with stress, that characterize PTSD.

Although the VA has confirmed that social support helps prevent PTSD, there is not yet sufficient research to confirm that outdoor sports are an effective treatment.

Recreational therapy is part of the recovery at the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio, Texas, which provides rehabilitation for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom service members who have sustained amputation, burns or functional limb loss, but it’s not a part of programs for treating veterans.

Dr. Matthew Friedman, executive director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Center for Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder, says there’s been interest in the benefits of outdoors programs for a long time, particularly those crafted by Outward Bound.

“There’s no question in my mind that people who engage in Outward Bound find the experience valuable, but there are many valuable outcomes that may only be indirectly related to PTSD outcomes,” he says.

Outward Bound programs promote individual empowerment to deal with daunting situations and succeed.

“By enhancing one’s feelings of self efficacy, that has a lot of beneficial effects on how people feel about the world. They’re in a position to confront some of their own concerns or personal demons,” he says. Outward Bound, and, presumably, other wilderness programs, also promote a sense of teamwork, developing an ability to give and receive support. And social support can be protective against developing PTSD during war time, he says.

He cautions that too much adrenaline can be dangerous because, biologically, PTSD connects to an inability to regulate adrenaline in the brain.

“It’s much too early to conclude that outdoor challenge experiences will ameliorate PTSD,” Dr. Friedman says.

“One could contemplate scenarios where they might actually exacerbate situations, particularly where the leadership experience is not well trained and the people are exposed to unnecessary risk and danger.”

The treatments for PTSD available now, he says, are excellent and they’ve had great success with a number of psychotherapeutic approaches.

Veterans Expeditions has a slot reserved to present “Reclaiming the Edge” about PTSD and the outdoors at 6:30 p.m. on July 20 at the REI in Boulder.

For more information on Veterans Expeditions, visit www.vetexpeditions. com, for more on Paradox Sports, see www. paradoxsports.org, for Wounded Warrior Project visit www.woundedwarriorproject. org and for more on Team River Runner, see www.teamriverrunner.org.

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