The transition back to civilian life after seven years as a forward observer in the Army was more difficult than REI Regional Product Insights Manager Jason Knode expected. There were lingering feelings of loneliness, regret and anxiety, and depressing thoughts. Though he wasn’t diagnosed with a mental health disorder, he says most other veterans he knows felt the same way.
“Mentally, transitioning from the military back to the civilian sector was one of the most challenging journeys I’ve undertaken,” he says. In response, Knode turned to the outdoors. Though no official outdoor programming was offered to him when he left the Army, he found his time in nature—both alone, and with fellow veterans—to be calming and grounding.
“In a lot of ways, making a successful transition from war to civilian life is a lot like climbing a very challenging mountain,” Knode, who is now 35, says. “Whenever I have felt overwhelmed in life or feel off track, taking a trip into the mountains allows me to reflect and process.”
Knode isn’t alone in seeking solace in the outdoors, and a new bill could make it easier for veterans seeking medical treatment and therapy outside. The Senate today unanimously passed the Accelerating Veterans Recovery Outdoors Act, or S.1263, which establishes an interagency task force, calling on members of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of the Interior, among others, to make recommendations about how the outdoors can be used as preventative care, medical treatment and therapy for veterans. Advocates hope the bill, which passed out of the House of Representatives on Sept. 23, will encourage federal agencies to reduce barriers to veterans seeking to use public lands for medical care and other health benefits.
In May 2019, Representatives Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Adam Smith (D-WA) introduced the House version of the bill, and a bipartisan pair of Senators—Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) and Steve Daines (R-MT)—introduced the companion bill. In the intervening months, more than 150 members of Congress from both parties signed on to sponsor the legislation.
“Veteran assistance groups agree that access to nature, combined with other treatments like group activities, have positive therapeutic effects on veterans especially those struggling with combat-related injuries or post-traumatic stress,” Chris Smith and Adam Smith said in a joint statement in September.
REI also played a role by partnering with members of Congress to help draft and advance the bill through the legislative process.
“Creating more opportunities for veterans to use public lands to heal and recover simply makes sense,” REI CEO Eric Artz said in September. “I believe in the healing power of the outdoors, and we should be doing everything we can to make time outside easier for fellow veterans.”
There were more than 20 million veterans living in the U.S. in 2016, according to PEW research. When it comes to reentry to civilian life, veterans like Knode can struggle with settling on a new career path or finding a close-knit group to stand in for the closeness of the military experience, according to New Directions for Veterans, a Los Angeles–based nonprofit that offers social services to veterans. Some also return with the lingering physical and psychological effects of traumatic war experiences, which can take the form of post–traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, substance use and abuse, and beyond.
Maddy Toft, 48, is a merchandising operations manager for REI and a veteran who served as an Army captain and pilot from 1994 to 2002. “Too often, veterans come back and get shoved into a crowded hospital to undergo physical or mental therapy,” she says. “But sometimes the best and simplest thing you can do is to get out and walk in the fresh air, so you’re not surrounded by what reminds you of your suffering.”
Time in nature has been shown to help people of varying backgrounds with mental health issues by reducing depression and anxiety and increasing overall happiness. For veterans, in particular, time outside appears to decrease symptoms of PTSD and may help former service members reintegrate into civilian life. At the University of Washington, an ongoing study, which started in 2018 with support from REI, aims to test the benefits of wilderness hiking as a treatment for PTSD among veterans. Lead researcher Greg Bratman is currently looking at the effects of nature on veterans’ mental and physical health in urban settings (like walks in city centers) compared with more rural settings, like mountainscapes. In Austin, Texas, researcher David Scheinfeld is doing similar work, focusing on how veterans respond to Outward Bound programs. Early results suggest the programs may improve interpersonal relations, boost resilience and improve a sense of purpose among veterans.
It’s expected that President Trump will sign the bill into law. Once he does, the new task force established by the act will spend time evaluating the research on nature’s impact on health to create programming that helps veterans use the outdoors, and public lands more specifically, to move through transitions and cope with mental health struggles like depression and PTSD.
“Despite all the programs available for getting veterans out, we still don’t have enough veterans connecting to the outdoors across the country,” says Stacy Bare, an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran (2006–07) and the founder of Adventure Not War and the Great Outdoors Lab, two organizations that study veterans and the outdoors, and aim to help get veterans outside. “This [new bill] will help to ensure outfitters and institutions that support outdoor connection can best engage and support time outdoors for veterans—and most importantly support veterans becoming leaders in the outdoors.”
Scheinfeld’s research also suggests that outdoor therapy may invite less stigma than talk therapy, especially among veterans. Talk therapy, which involves sitting in a room with a therapist and discussing your emotions, can be intimidating, especially for those who come from a work or personal culture where discussing one’s feelings is seen as taboo.
“Sitting in an office environment [for therapy] can seem sterile,” Toft says of the bill’s potential programming, which could one day include programs like Outward Bound, meaning therapeutic conversations would occur in the wild rather than in an office. “When you’re walking and talking, you’re much more likely to be open and less guarded, so you can release what you’ve been holding inside.”