A growing trend in the outdoor industry is the therapeutic wilderness experience, which addresses a variety of mental and physical disabilities with fresh air, physical exertion, team building, and, at times, good old fashioned solitude.
Nick Watson, executive director of Veterans Expeditions, and a veteran of the first Iraq War, says that he can see the positive effects on his clients the minute they step outdoors.
“We try to push people’s limits as carefully and successfully as we can,” explains Watson in an interview with National Geographic upon winning the magazine’s Adventurer of the Year award, along with Bare. That is part of the deal when veterans apply to join the organization’s expeditions, which have included a summit of Denali, Grand Teton, and numerous smaller peaks, as well as white water rafting and rock climbing trips.
Veterans who go on Watson’s trips say that it allows them to get outside their heads. According to VetEx’s co-founder Stacey Bare, the rigors of climbing a mountain approximate many aspects of the military that vets say they enjoyed during their service, including camaraderie, structure and intensity.
To date, over 1000 vets have participated and benefited from the unique cocktail of meticulous planning and execution, physical exertion, and adrenaline that VetEx provides through its trips. With a sustainable model that involves participant fundraising and sponsorships, it seems likely that the group will be able to guide trips for years to come.
Other organizations offering similar services include Warrior Hike, which organizes through-hikes of the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, Arizona, and Continental Divide trails; Team River Runner, which focuses on white water kayaking; and the Sierra Club’s Military Families Outdoor program.
All of the above rely on the time-tested combination of wilderness and companionship. While solutions to the difficulties facing veterans remain elusive, we may take some comfort in knowing that experiencing the outdoors can at least offer a new vantage point and new horizon for many of our nation's returning soldiers.
By Brian Gruters
Brian writes about science, conservation, and ways that people interact with nature for various publications, as well as his blog, briangruters.com. He is an aspiring surfer, member of the Southern California Mountaineers Association, and likes to explore mountains and canyons.