Veterans climb above trauma on Mount Rainier

March 14, 2014 

Joshua Brandon climbs in the Olympic Mountains in September 2012.

COURTESY SIERRA CLUB MILITARY OUTDOORS

After three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, I was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. Many of my brothers and sisters and arms have faced the same challenge upon returning home from war.

Yet too few of them have access to a resource that, at least for me, was ultimately life-saving. For me and many like me, recovery is a lifelong journey that we will always strive for but may never quite reach.

During one of the roughest legs of my journey, I was able to take shelter on the land I served. Getting outside set me on a path to survival.

I had never truly experienced mountains or forests before I was stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Growing up for most of my life in Cleveland, a city park or a wooded back yard was about as close to “wilderness” as I ever got.

When my buddies and I first saw Mount Rainier looming on the horizon, our immediate impulse was to go climb it. As a group of restless warriors waiting for their next fight, what else was there to do?

What began as a test of our own strength soon served as a transformative event. I fell in love with the mountains and kept returning to them. I found they were better than any pill or therapy I had received.

I am not an anomaly. A University of Michigan and Sierra Club study found strong suggestions that extensive group-based nature recreation can have significant, positive impacts on veterans struggling with serious health problems.

Researchers took veterans in groups of six to 12 on a multi-day hike and surveyed their moods before and after. One week after the experience, veterans reported improvements in mood, social functioning and outlook on life. More research is needed, but anyone who has spent time on a trail knows the restorative power of being outside.

I stayed in Washington after my time with the Army ended because I developed a deep love for the outdoors and have in some ways been acting as an evangelist for its benefits. It is gratifying to see our governor shares in that respect for the landscape.

On Feb. 20, Gov. Jay Inslee announced an executive order to create a Blue Ribbon Task Force on Parks and Outdoor Recreation to promote the $22.5 billion outdoor recreation economy in Washington. I’m grateful to the governor for taking this step in protecting our natural heritage for the future.

I invite this task force to view the incredible health benefits provided by our verdant landscapes as another economic benefit and an essential asset to creating a high quality of life for all Washingtonians, especially those living with mental anguish.

The Sierra Club has future research planned with the University of California at Berkeley on the effects of the outdoors on the mental state of veterans, adults and children that we expect to release in 2017.

Creating comprehensive health solutions — whether it is something large like veterans’ mental health or simply creating a healthier lifestyle for our families — will require inclusion and support of strong funding for our great outdoors.

I mean it when I say the mountains saved my life. I hope all Washingtonians will come to appreciate the impact the outdoors have on the lives of those in need of some natural respite. Or you could join us on the trail and see it for yourself.

Joshua Green, a veteran formerly based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, lives in Lacey and runs the national Sierra Club’s military outdoors program.

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