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How the Outdoors Helps the Military and Veteran Family: A Summary

Following up on four nights and three days of an incredibly powerful conference: Toward a Better Understanding of Nature’s Resiliency-Building and Restorative Power for Armed Forces Personnel, Veterans, and their Families, is no easy task. I am also privileged to try and find a way to incorporate the incredibly powerful trip we had prior to the conference through the Gates of Lodore on the Green River with a group of 23 veterans, active duty service members, and their partners and friends.

OB Presentation
What started out as a conversation over coffee with Vietnam-era Veteran and Professor of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism at the University of Utah, about what we could do together to promote the value of the outdoors for veterans back in 2012, ended up being a first of its kind, international (representatives from Australia and Denmark) symposium bringing together an outstanding group of academics, practioners, speakers, and others interested in how we can harness the power of nature to support our nation’s heroes. Three key note speakers, Vietnam Veteran and acclaimed author Doug Peacock, founder of American Women Veterans, Genevieve Chase, and acclaimed author Eric Blehm, who has followed and reported on our special operations warriors in Afghanistan, created a spiritual underpinning for the conference’s proceedings reminding us why we do the work we do in the first place.

Dr. Dustin and his team, led by Parks, Recreation, and Tourism department chair Dr. Kelly Bricker deserve the lion’s share of the credit for this incredible event. However, it takes an entire team to make something of this size and magnitude happen and the event could not have happened without the full support of the Sierra Club, University of Utah Guest House, O.A.R.S., Sagamore Publishing, The Wal-Mart Foundation, and the Association of the United States Army.

Summarizing what we learned is nearly impossible in the short space of a blog and full conference proceedings will be coming out, but highlights included:

  • Recognition of the challenges in quantifying the power of nature, something which science can’t fit its calipers around and whose inherent majesty and mystery are part of the reason why so many people find such great solace, healing, and benefit to time outdoors;
  • Recognition that there is no one size fits all approach for anyone out in nature. Programs for kids, couples, families, individual veterans, even between active duty service members, and veterans often require different approaches.
  • While some individuals, who fall into what one presenter reported as the 5-20% of veterans who suffer PTSD, may require a more clinical approach, there are others who, even if they do have PTSD, adjustment disorder, or another mental health issue, are seeking different experiences and there’s a requirement that we work with 100% of all veterans and military family members, not just a few;
  • There is a distinction, often difficult to make between receiving therapy in nature, and having nature serve as a co-therapist, and determining what benefits happen, regardless of therapeutic intent, from time spent outdoors;
  • The research is limited, and perhaps flawed, that would allow for time in nature to replace existing PTSD and mental health therapies provided by the Veterans Administration; however, different programs are seeking different outcomes for participants that include supporting or encouraging participants to seek out conventional mental health programming, improved physical fitness, nature as a means to provide other therapeutic modalities like yoga, breathing, or elements of conventional mental health;
  • Mental health as a general rule is not treated like public health or something like infectious diseases wherein work is done to prevent an outbreak unlike mental health where services aren’t typically given until symptoms appear. A change in approach may be needed;
  • There’s a huge host of anecdotal evidence that time outdoors supports a broad range of positive outcomes for the military and veteran community, but far more research, involving multiple disciplines, is still required, especially if we want policies around treatment, resiliency, access, and conservation to continue supporting, or begin supporting nature and wilderness for our military and veteran community.

A spirited discussion at the end of the symposium presented several challenges to participants as to a way forward that included discussions of how those engaged in this work could serve and act as advocates not just for expanded programming and access to nature for the military and veteran community, but how to also ensure that the places and lands where programming, formal and informal, individual or in groups, took place remained able to host people in their pristine environments.

AF ROTC Flag Ceremony
Dr. Dustin again reminded us all to hold fast to the mystery and power of nature, which got us all involved in the first place. While a book, capturing the presentations as chapters and a second, highlighting the essence of the work of the programs and presenters through photos is forthcoming, suggestions for future work included:

  • Hosting a second, follow on symposium in 2016 with dedicated outreach to the various interdisciplinary study of the benefit of time outdoors for the military and veteran community could happen in an existing academic conference as one track or be maintained as a stand-alone assembly. Three different universities expressed interest in hosting;
  • Ensuring representation from this first symposium were able to participate at the Healthy Parks, Healthy People conference scheduled for the summer of 2015;
  • Finding ways to promote programming and research with the Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense;
  • What applies to service members, veterans, and their families for the benefits of time outdoors should be equally applicable to all people outdoors: we all need time outside!
  • Despite the challenges in researching resiliency and preventative measures, more work needs to be done to determine how time outdoors can create resiliency and increase preventative mental health responses
  • More research on programs not relating to PTSD or TBI, as well as families and active duty service members needs to be represented
  • An effort will be made to present findings from the research at This Land is Your Land next year during Great Outdoors America Week

There is far more that could be written and far more, no doubt that will be about this event which hopefully will spur a far wider conversation, appreciation of, and participation in, the great outdoors. I know we all look forward to your thoughts, comments, questions, and ideas as we move forward, if you were at the conference or not.

 Thanks again to everyone who made, This Land is Your Land, a reality. We hope to see you on a trail soon!





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