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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Natural Paths to Coming Home: Returning Veterans and the Great Outdoors

A whole range of programs are springing up across the country, pairing returning troops and veterans with the great outdoors.

For some of these efforts, reintegration support and/or PTSD therapy are the main goal; providing jobs or forming social networks is the main catalyst for others. But, no matter what the driving factor or framework, these offerings provide military families a way to reconnect with the land they so truly have sacrificed so much for.

In extended, a brief look at a handful of such programs. Please share others you may know of in your area in comments.

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.

They're restoring the land. Patrick Oppmann, CNN:

For veteran Jeremy Grisham, clearing heavy brush with an ax in the woods near Seattle is a way to "work out demons." Like many other vets returning from deployment overseas, Grisham, a medical corpsman, came back from Iraq seared by memories of war and unsure about how to re-enter civilian life.

But a program in Washington state helps military veterans learn marketable job skills and make sense of their experiences in combat. Program managers say the Veterans Conservation Corps initiative helps hundreds of vets study and train to enter the growing "green" jobs field.

In return, the veterans work on projects that help restore the environment in state parks. The VCC, though, is much more than job training for Grisham and many of the other vets. It's a form of therapy.

"Sometimes it feels really good. When we take invasive weeds off a tree that's being suffocated and we free something. I feel a bit lighter inside," Grisham says. He says he thinks about his experiences in Iraq every day but years later is still not able to freely discuss the details.

"There's a few things I regret deeply. I can't make it different, I can't change what happened, but it gives me a way to make some small steps to make a difference." Finding a way to make that difference is crucial to veterans who have recently left the military, says VCC program manager Mark Fischer.

The program gets "younger veterans involved so that they have a new mission when they come back from overseas. A lot of them get lost in a variety of problems, and we wanted to capture as many of them as possible -- get them involved in something meaningful," Fischer adds. "Outdoor work is healing."

And, soon, tilling the fields at Valley Forge Village.

Already busy planting. Gary Warth, North County Times:

Inside a warm, white-topped greenhouse in Valley Center, former Marine Sgt. Colin Archipley and some other veterans are working on the future. The recycling process Archipley uses to grow bio-hydroponic organic basil may be part of the future of farming, especially in Southern California, where water is in increasingly short supply.

But for the men working with Archipley last week, their future is much more personal. The workers are part of a unique program coordinated by the Department of Veterans Affairs to offer a second chance, as well as a peaceful environment, to vets.

"I get a sense of peace just being able to stand here and do repetitive hand labor, where I can basically meditate," said Olaf Hansen, 65, a Navy veteran who served from 1967-69.

A down-on-his-luck architect whose business is in bankruptcy, Hansen was referred to Archipley's farm, Archi's Acres, through a VA psychiatrist he had been seeing for depression. Today, he is one of the first six veterans to have worked at Archi's Acres in the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training program.

Archipley, 28, said he never imagined his small farm could help fellow veterans when he started the project in 2006 after returning from three tours in Iraq. Then again, while growing up in Northern California, he never thought he would be farmer.

"I didn't have any background," he said about farming. "My wife had an itch to move to Italy a couple of years ago, and I didn't want to move out of the United States. But a friend said if you like Italy, you should check this place out."

The rolling, open hills surrounding his farm looked enough like Tuscany for the couple, and Archipley and his wife, Karen, moved onto the property and began selling their avocados and basil at local farmer's markets.

Farm life agreed with Archipley, who said he couldn't imagine taking a high-pressure job dealing with customers after returning from Iraq. One night, while attending a San Marcos town hall meeting organized by the VA, Archipley passed his card around and told other veterans that he found farm work therapeutic, and it might be something they should consider.

A director from the VA happened to be in the room, and he passed Archipley's card on to Jeff Scanlon, a vocational rehabilitation counselor with the department. About 18 months ago, Scanlon and Archipley created the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training program. Veterans are referred to the program by the VA, which is paying their salary in its pilot phase.

"It's something that we're definitely going to retain and grow," Scanlon said.

Archipley said he would like to see the program duplicated around the world, and he sees it having great potential for veterans returning from urban wars.

"Take an Iraq vet or an Afghanistan vet, where every roof was a potential danger," he said. "What do you do? Come back and work in an urban environment? You can't just put them in Wal-Mart and expect them to greet customers."

More successful garden therapy going on near Camp Pendleton, in one case quilters coming together to support the effort. Linda McIntosh, San Diego Union Tribune:

Loretta Harry painted red stars and hearts across a quilt she made out of old blue jeans. As she cut and sewed, Harry thought of the troops in Iraq. In red letters, she painted, “Thank you.”

“I hope the troops who need it see the prayers and love that goes into it,” she said.

Harry's quilt is part of a community effort to support Marines coming back from Iraq with combat stress. Denim quilts are being sold to raise money for Operation Recovery, an Oceanside-based program that provides therapeutic activities, such as gardening and carpentry, for active-duty service members and veterans. ...

Since Bob Bornt got Operation Recovery off the ground [in fall 2007] and put out a call for old jeans to make quilts, he received 1,400 pairs from community members. ...

“The quilt in a way represents what Operation Recovery is all about,” Bornt said. “The denim jean is the American working man's fabric.”

The program is about using work in a garden to come to terms with difficult emotions and work off stress. Bornt, a licensed marriage and family therapist and third generation farmer runs the program out of a barn behind Mission San Luis Rey.

“There is healing power in working with the soil,” said Bornt, who has a master's degree in clinical psychology.

Bornt is reaching out to Camp Pendleton Marines and their families with the belief that gardening and construction activities will be a way to relieve stress.

“The program is not about diagnosing anyone, but about providing a safe place to process one's feelings and reach emotional flexibility,” Bornt said.

The program is partly funded by a nonprofit Bornt founded called Farm Hands.

They're also fly fishing. Chester Allen, The Olympian:

Learning how to tie flies, cast a fly rod and hook a few fish isn't standard military training, but it has become so for the Warrior Transition Battalion. Every Tuesday afternoon volunteers from Project Healing Waters arrive in the barracks meeting room, set up fly-tying vises, rig fly rods, and help soldiers heal.

The soldiers who are placed in the Warrior Transition Battalion need six months or more of complex medical care. They come from different Army units, and some will remain in the Army after their time in the battalion, while others will eventually return to civilian life.

But every soldier in the battalion has a chance to learn fly fishing from volunteers for Trout Unlimited and Federation of Fly Fishers chapters as part of Project Healing Waters, said Chuck Tye of Olympia.

"Project Healing Waters has been at Fort Lewis for about a year now," said Tye, a retired U.S. Marine who is the Northwest regional coordinator for the program. "The program offers both mental and physical healing for veterans, whether they have post-traumatic stress disorder or injuries."

Some combat veterans with severe wounds return to the United States and wonder what the rest of their life has to offer, Tye said.

Teaching veterans how to tie flies, cast a fly rod - and then taking them on fishing outings to the Yakima River or American Lake - introduces soldiers to the tranquility and fascination that fly fishing offers. The intricate work of tying a fly or the precise timing of casting a fly rod combine physical therapy and mental therapy, Tye said. Soldiers who have lost a limb or suffered other terrible wounds soon learn they still can do all it takes to catch fish.

"We look at this as part of the medical kit bag that helps soldiers regain what they have lost," Tye said.

It's Tye's job to connect members of the military with civilian fly anglers in the Northwest. Project Healing Waters was started in 2005 in the Washington, D.C., area, and there are now programs in 38 states, he said.

And horseback riding. Earle Kelly, Maryland Gazette:

A disabled soldier, back from fighting in Iraq, leaned forward and rubbed the small gray mare's neck. He whispered to the horse, as if confiding in a girlfriend. Across the arena, another injured warrior, a larger man, was leaning back in his saddle and actually appeared to be dozing off as a gelding named Dakota walked along gently in the arena at Maryland Therapeutic Riding in Crownsville.

"Talk about being in the moment - when you are up there, everything else is blocked out, everything else goes away," founder Naomi Parry, said as she looked out over the riding area.

Tears came to Parry's eyes on one occasion as one of the disabled riders leaned forward and put his arms around the horse's neck.

"That's enough to make you cry," she said.

A week later, these soldiers from Fort George G. Meade's Warrior Transition Unit were back at MTR, ready for more riding therapy. "I was blown out of the back of a 5-ton (truck)," said Spec. Dominick Miller, 29. The soldier from Kingston, N.Y., was injured Dec. 14, 2007, in Iraq. The incident left Miller with ruptured disks and damaged vertebrae in his back, and at one time he suffered temporary paralysis.

He's like many of the 145 soldiers at the Fort Meade unit, half of whom were injured fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. They suffer from traumatic brain injury, other serious physical injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. ...Miller described therapeutic riding as "very soothing."

"It is actually very comfortable, and it is helping my back," he said. The need for therapeutic programs is growing.

"Andrews (Air Force Base) is the first place they touch U.S. soil," said Maj. Gen. Ralph Jodice,Walter Reed (Army Hospital), and some will move on to the Veterans Administration."

Jodice was at Maryland Therapeutic Riding to evaluate the feasibility of integrating therapeutic riding into the treatment regimen. Fort Meade began sending wounded soldiers to the center earlier this year, after its then-commander, retired Col. Kenneth O. McCreedy, paid the facility a visit last year an saw how it helped autistic children. He's now on the organization's board of directors.

"People who were basically nonfunctioning - as soon as you put them on a horse, their posture improved, they could respond to directions, they could talk … They were different people," McCreedy said. "And they had huge smiles on their faces."

"I was hooked. I saw the power of that relationship of a human and a horse." The result was that Maryland Therapeutic Riding created the "Horses for Heroes" program, and will provide therapy for about 50 eligible soldiers from Fort Meade and Walter Reed Army Hospital this year, without charge.

And even surfing. Surfwire Press Release:

Disabled veterans, local disabled, a Para-Olympian and wounded active duty servicemen from Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas are traveling to Pismo Beach, California, August 13 - 20, 2009 to experience the thrill and healing power of surfing. Most of these soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines lost limbs, were burned, or have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from serving in operations overseas. The Association of Amputee Surfers (Ampsurf) along with professional and local surfers will provide the instruction for Operation Restoration IV.

The idea for these surf clinics started in 2003, just after the start of the Iraq War, when founders Dana Cummings, Greg Birkholz, John Hollingsead and Rodney Roller teamed up to create Ampsurf). 2009 marks the forth-year of Operation Restoration and marks the seventh year Ampsurf has been putting these events together to teach adaptive surfing to those who may never experience the healing power of the ocean and the sport.

"Since starting Operation Restoration four years ago, Ampsurf has helped more than 200 disabled, Veteran and non-veteran, to surf," said Dana Cummings, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Ampsurf. "There is an on-going, great need to assist those who are serving our country who have had disabling injuries. The ocean, with its quiet healing power, and surfing can restore that person in many positive ways. This year alone, we expect to help more than 200 disabled/veterans."

Read more (scroll down) for general public invitation to event.

And there's a real push towards green jobs of the future, something that many veterans say will not only protect the environment -- but our nation, too. Daniel Stone, Newsweek:

Nonprofit groups like Boulder, Colo.–based Veterans Green Jobs, which last year launched "rapid training and deployment" workshops to hone vets' skills and funnel them into energy companies, deepen the talent and recruitment pool. Following suit, a Washington nonprofit called the Truman National Security Project launched a program this month to train vets to drive the message of an undeniable overlap between green energy and national security.

In some instances, veterans are acting as recruiters for their new employers. Tim Hyclak, an Air Force crew chief who did six tours in Iraq, is now a maintenance technician with Solaicx, an early-stage solar manufacturer. He heard about the company from a fellow vet and has instructed his friends to call him for jobs when they're discharged.

Changing out of camouflage and into the renewable energy industry makes it easier to slip into civilian society says Jimmy Park, a former Marine specialist who's now a prized engineer with panel-installation company Akeena Solar. He says that people sometimes mistook him for a killing machine. "But when you say you work in renewable energy," he says, "it's like you're a hero."

For other vets, working in an industry geared toward energy independence is an extension of their national service. Pennsylvania Rep. Pat Murphy, a vet himself, recently visited a wind-power manufacturing plant in his home district to reinforce that message. "I told them, 'You're making us safer at home. By getting us away from the people who sell us oil, you're playing a key role in our national security.'?"

And, lest we forget to add to this list this summer's cross country cycling trip by OIF veteran and author Tyler Boudreau.

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