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New VA Program Investigates Outdoor Therapy For Veterans

Getting into shape traditionally tops many people's lists when it comes to New Year's resolutions. But after a tumultuous past year, focusing on mental health needs is also important. Recently passed legislation aims to help America's military veterans with both.

Last month, President Trump signed the Accelerating Veterans Recovery Outdoors Act after it easily passed in Congress in a rare instance of bipartisan support, as part of a package called the Veterans COMPACT Act of 2020.

Among other things, the new legislation calls on the Department of Veterans Affairs to implement programs and policies related to transition assistance, suicide care, mental health education and treatment. More specifically, it requires the VA to establish a task force to investigate the benefits of outdoor recreation therapy for veterans.

In the not-too-distant future, struggling veterans could be prescribed outdoor activities as treatments; a welcome alternative to pharmaceuticals or a more traditional approach to therapy.

Former Navy SEALs Dustin Kisling and Josh Jespersen helped champion the new law. Starting from the ground up, they reached out to friends, family, colleagues and fellow veterans alike, urging them to contact members of Congress to help push passage of the bill.

The potentially life-saving legislation, Kisling explains, was just too important to fail.

"If something like this gets enacted and they recognize the outdoor therapeutic approach, it has the potential to make great changes," he says. "If advancing this option can save one life, then I'm passionate about it."

A 2020 study conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs found that an average 17 veterans died by suicide every day in 2018 — more than 6,400 a year.

In 2019, Kisling and Jespersen founded the Veteran's Outdoor Advocacy Group, promoting outdoor therapy as a recognized and legitimate form of treatment for veterans.

"I'd love to see an end to veteran suicide, but I don't know that'll happen. I view this as a way of making an impact on brothers and sisters," Kisling says.

Dustin Kisling, left, and Josh Jesperson, right, at the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., 2020. The two former Navy SEALs advocated for outdoor recreation as an effective treatment for veterans.
Dustin Kisling / Dustin Kisling
Dustin Kisling
Dustin Kisling, left, and Josh Jesperson, right, at the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., 2020. The two former Navy SEALs advocated for outdoor recreation as an effective treatment for veterans.

In Jackson, Wyo., former Navy corpsman Cam Fields has pioneered something he calls shred therapy. Fields is the founder and CEO of Front Country Foundation, a non-profit that teaches veterans how to safely access the mountains on skis and snowboards. But he isn't selling anything. Front Country Foundation provides a skill set for veterans overcoming traumas.

"I'm not in the business of hosting ski trips, this is a tool," he says. "I want these guys to be able to go home and do this on their own or with their group and feel safe and good about what they're doing. Giving them the tools to go home and deal with whatever they're going through."

At the moment, Fields can only accommodate so many veterans over the course of the winter. When the foundation's funds dry up, he pays for expenses out of pocket. Flying veterans to Wyoming and working with them on his own dime in hopes they will return home a little better than when they arrived.

A 2019 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates 37 to 50% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have been diagnosed with a mental disorder. Unfortunately that often leads to self-medication. More than one-in-ten veterans have a substance abuse problem.

If the VA's task force finds promising results while exploring outdoor recreation therapy, costs for participation in programs such as Front Country Foundation could be covered. No different than paying for a prescription, Fields explains.

"What we are hoping to see is it becomes more of a thing so vets don't feel pressured to take a pharmaceutical," Fields said.

"A lot of people just think of therapy as sitting in an office, but you can get outside, bike, climb, ride. It's just, not being confined in four walls," he says, advising, "Let your mind and soul breathe."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dustin Jones
Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.