Wilder paths to rejoining civilian life

How the great outdoors are helping veterans and their spouses cope


The Women’s Wilderness Institute, a Boulder-based non-profit organization focused on helping women build strength and courage through wilderness experiences, recently teamed up with the Sierra Club and the University of Michigan to research the benefits of outdoor activities for veterans.

Three desert backpacking trips funded by a $30,000 grant from the Sierra Club, along with outings coordinated by three other grant winners, will examine whether being outdoors can help veterans and their families cope with problems like reintegration and PTSD. If the results show that outdoor activities are beneficial, new policies involving immediate outdoor work for returning service members may be implemented, says Stacy Bare, the Military Families and Veterans representative for the Sierra Club. That change could drastically reduce the time and money spent on extensive therapy and medication.

“We have heard from people time and time again that the VA isn’t helping, the hospital isn’t helping, or the medication isn’t helping, but being outdoors is,” Bare says. “These outings get people out of their everyday experience, which can be filled with frustration or boredom, and allow them to be and focus on something different. This could really change the way we help veterans.”

“The wilderness offers a place where it is quiet and there is not a ton of outside stimulation,” says Shari Leach, the executive director of the institute. “This makes it so you have the space to be with your own thoughts and emotions and to process those. There are also quiet noises around you all the time, like crickets, and birds, and water, that help remind you that you are a part of something greater, and that can be really reassuring for people. All of the armed services have begun to look at how this might benefit veterans.”

The Women’s Wilderness Institute will coordinate three desert backpacking trips in April for female veterans and female spouses or partners of veterans, each of which will begin in Grand Junction before moving into the Utah desert. Though the trips will be along the same route, the veterans and the spouses or partners will be taken on separate routes to better meet their unique needs, Leach says.

“Women who are veterans are more likely to have PTSD, or they sometimes have reintegration challenges,” Leach says. “A lot of the emotions that serve you really well, particularly as a woman, in a combat situation are not the emotions that we naturally associate with women back home. So it can be really hard for women to feel like themselves again after their service. For spouses and partners, there is a lot of challenge as well when your partner comes back from a combat situation. They have had some experiences that you haven’t shared in, so it can be really hard to understand what is going on for them. You have also had to create a life and a routine that functions with them not being there, and all of a sudden they are trying to fit back into it. There can be a lot of tension in relationships as a result of that.”

The group outings, like those that will be provided by the Women’s Wilderness Institute, will require them to work together, reminding these veterans and their partners that they’re not alone in what they’re dealing with, Bare says.

“Adventuring outdoors can help veterans realize that though they may not find the same camaraderie they found in the military, they can still lead exciting and adventurous lives,” Bare says. “It helps them and their families let go of the negative.”

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