Rob Vessels was never going to carry a gun for hire again.
He grew up in the “G.I. Joe Generation,” on John Wayne movies and playing army in the backyard. He always wanted to be a soldier, so he became one as soon as he could—two weeks after graduating from high school in 2004.
But five years in the U.S. Army changed all that. After moving back to Indiana with his parents, he felt lost.
“In those five years, I pretty much experienced a lifetime,” he said. “I didn't feel like I could connect with anyone or anything back home.”
So, he grabbed a tent, a backpack and his dog, Prudence, and walked off into the wilderness.
“I just walked until I didn’t want to walk anymore,” he said. “It really helped me process things in my head.”
Now, as a leader of the Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors program, Vessels and his team of more than 300 volunteers across the country are helping other veterans heal in the same way.
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For many retired or separated service members, the fighting doesn’t end when they leave active duty. Adjusting to a new life outside the military can be a battle, too.
A 2011 Pew Research Center study reported that more than a quarter of veterans said their transition from military to civilian life was difficult — a proportion that climbs to 44 percent among veterans who served after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The adjustment is even harder, the study showed, for veterans who experienced emotional or physical trauma while serving, which affects roughly a third of all veterans.
After leaving the regimented structure of military life, the ambiguity and abundance of choice in the civilian world can leave many veterans bewildered. For Vessels, leaving the military meant being on his own for the first time.
“We talk about veterans reintegrating into society,” he said, “but for me, it was kind of like entering into society for the first time.
“I always had a system where I was part of some structure — they fed me, gave me clothes, put a roof over my head — and then suddenly that’s cut off, and you’re just off on your own. It’s exciting at first, and then quickly you have to rediscover a sense of purpose for your life, or else that can catch up with you and really, really start to spiral.”
Despite increased awareness of the unique medical and social challenges veterans face when re-entering the civilian world, a 2018 evaluation of the Department of Veterans Affairs found that a large proportion — up to half of recent U.S. wartime veterans — do not get mental health help.
Although resources are available, the evaluation showed many veterans were unaware of their eligibility or didn’t know how to connect to these programs.
Retired Cmdr. David Petri of Mount Airy dealt with some anxiety during his own transition out of the Navy. While he recognized his symptoms and sought help, he said stigmas associated with using mental-health services in the military make it difficult for some to take those steps. Some fear getting help may be a sign of weakness or that it will hurt their social and professional lives.
“For a lot of people in military culture, and even in American culture, the idea of recognizing you have a mental problem and asking for help is very difficult to do,” Petri said. “In many cases, that’s the first step in the solution.”
Transcending these barriers to care can require alternative avenues for mental-health services and therapy, something that wilderness excursion programs have tapped into over the past few decades.
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While serving in the Army, Colorado-based veteran Lindsey McNamara experienced cognitive dissonance — she felt like she was playing dress-up in someone else’s clothes, she said.
After retiring from the service in 2011, McNamara turned to nature to heal from the years of negativity and emotional trauma she experienced, and found a new kind of empowerment in completing solo expeditions.
She’s now traversed most mountain ranges between the Sierra Nevada and the Atlantic and volunteers as a wilderness guide for the Sierra Club, bringing other veterans outside with her.
“The fact that I can scale mountains and backpack 100 miles with a 50-pound rucksack on my back, with my own food supply and filter water as I go — I finish a trip like that and realize that I am capable and have something to contribute and I am tough in different ways than the narrow definition of what the Army deems desirable,” she said.
McNamara’s experience with nature represents an emerging field of therapy — ecotherapy — that’s changing the way scientists view our relationship with nature. Studies have shown that contact with nature has the power to transform our bodies and minds by reducing levels of stress and anxiety, lowering blood pressure and increasing positive thoughts.
These benefits are a result of nature’s calming effect on humans, said Dr. Nate Sowa, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the UNC School of Medicine, in an interview with UNC Health Care.
“When you’re in nature, there’s a thought that different parts of your brain are activating, and the parts that are related to being on-edge are being calmed down,” Sowa said.
But the healing impact that outdoor experiences can have on military veterans, particularly those that have experienced trauma, are just now being quantified.
During the summer of 2015, the Sierra Club tracked the hormone levels and emotions of veterans during a whitewater rafting trip. Preliminary analyses indicated the experience decreased levels of PTSD symptoms in participants by nearly 35 percent, improved sleep quality and increased feelings of overall well-being — even a week after the trip ended.
An additional study by the Greater Good Science Center analyzed the “science of awe,” and documented for the first time that the emotional and empowering “awe” people experience in nature can predict improvements in daily life satisfaction.
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Across the country, wilderness excursion programs such as the Sierra Club Military Outdoors and the N.C. Outward Bound School in Asheville, are building on this research by helping thousands of veterans reconnect with their bodies and minds through the natural world.
Inspired by a Vietnam veteran-turned-wilderness-instructor, the N.C. Outward Bound School’s wilderness program for veterans has sponsored expeditions across the state — from the Appalachian Mountains to the Outer Banks — with a goal of getting at least 1,000 veterans into the woods every year.
Matt Rosky, who manages the program, said the opportunity for veterans to be outside, work as a team and take on challenges together serves as a reminder to participants of their team building and leadership strengths, and often leaves them with a renewed sense of purpose.
“I think a lot of veterans, especially younger veterans, sometimes get stuck in thinking their entire lives are defined by the time they were in the service, and when you’re 25 or 30, you got an awful lot of life left to live,” Rosky said.
“We’re giving them the opportunity to go out there and really take stock of who they are, who they want to be and where they want to go.”
These wilderness excursions also provide a unique opportunity for veterans to connect with each other. For many of the participants in the Sierra Club Military Outdoors program, Vessels said, it’s the first time they’ve been around fellow veterans since they left the service.
“Whether they know it or not, that’s something they really were missing in their lives because I think isolation is a killer among the veteran population,” he said. “Giving veterans the opportunity to reconnect with the community can be life-changing.”
For retired Staff Sgt. Sarah Chillson, it was.
After leaving the Air Force in 2005, Chillson wanted to shut the military part of her life out completely — and for 10 years, she did.
She moved back to Pittsburgh, started a photography business and distanced herself from her veteran status. But her decision in 2016 to join a Military Outdoors camping trip in Utah’s Navajo Nation changed her perspective.
“It opened up this entire world to me that was shut off before, and it really feels like a community,” she said.
“We were all there for the same thing, and it wasn’t necessarily a ‘mission,’ but it was at the same time. I hadn’t experienced that in a long time.”
Since then, Chillson has gone on at least four other Military Outdoors trips, and has become an advocate for veteran’s wilderness programs in her own community.
“All the experiences have left me in tears, and I think everybody in the group has felt that way,” she said. “Without a doubt, wilderness therapy is legit. It’s a legit therapy for people.”