A New Bipartisan Bill Would Improve Outdoor Access for Veterans

The Outdoor Recreation Therapy for Veterans Act introduced by Adam Smith (D-WA) and Chris Smith (R-NJ) this week would open federal lands to veteran care based on growing evidence of the connection between time spent in nature and positive mental health.

A new bipartisan bill, the Outdoor Recreation Therapy for Veterans Act (H.R. 7138), was introduced Thursday by Representative Chris Smith from New Jersey and Representative Adam Smith from the state of Washington. The legislation would expand opportunities that allow veterans to access the outdoors for medical care.

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Representing constituents nearly 3,000 miles—and political poles—apart, the cosponsors drafted H.R. 7138 to establish an interagency task force, co-chaired by the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, to better utilize outdoor programs and federal lands for medical treatment. “For our veterans, the healing effects of nature can be especially powerful,” said Representative Adam Smith in a press release. “In Washington state, we know the incredible benefits that come from spending time in nature, and we owe it to our servicemen and women to open the door to all avenues of recovery when they return home.”

Robert White, a 20-year Army veteran and vice president of internal relations for Minority Veterans of America, said that he struggled with his transition from the Army and became suicidal as he worked to find his footing in civilian life. White felt “as if everything around me was crashing,” until he pushed himself to go hiking one weekend in the Olympic Mountains in western Washington. Something clicked. “For the first time in years, I felt whole again, as if I belonged in this world,” White said.

There are upwards of 20 million veterans in the U.S., according to the Department of Veteran Affairs. Gulf War-era vets, estimated at about 7 million strong, now represent the biggest veteran population, recently passing Vietnam-era vets as the majority.

Veteran organizations, including Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and Paralyzed Veterans of America see participation in outdoor pursuits as a vital—and underused—tool to promote healthy physical activity, build community and aid in the recovery from post-traumatic stress. “This bill would ensure barriers to accessing outdoor activities that assist veterans are evaluated and removed if needed,” Carlos Fuentes, Veterans of Foreign Wars national legislative service director, said in a statement of support yesterday.

Serving as a U.S. Army infantry officer for 10 years, including three combat tours in Iraq, Josh Brandon was awarded the Silver Star Medal and two Bronze Stars with Valor. In 2011, he was diagnosed with PTSD and credits the therapeutic benefits of outdoor adventure with aiding his recovery. He sees the legislation as a needed first step to helping veterans.

“Time and time again I’ve witnessed how veterans like myself with PTSD have benefited from the healing properties of nature, effective mental health care, and the rebuilding of community and confidence through challenging outdoor activity with fellow veterans,” said Brandon, a graduate student and research program manager at the University of Washington, where he is investigating the effects of wilderness hiking on combat veterans with PTSD. “While we have learned much about how to leverage nature-based activity in support of traditional healthcare, we still have a long road ahead of us in establishing this as a legitimate means of treatment for our veteran community.”

President and CEO of REI, Jerry Strizke, emphasized that helping our veterans is an ongoing responsibility. “We owe [veterans] our gratitude not just today, but every day. So, we applaud Congressmen Adam Smith and Chris Smith for taking this basic step, instructing the VA and the nation’s land managers to determine how our lands can be used to help our veterans heal.”

REI sees the legislation as another important step toward the acknowledgement of the healing powers of nature. “We know the outdoors is good for you,” Strizke said. “It’s only right that we make it as easy as possible for our veterans to rejuvenate among the country’s natural wonders.”

To advance understanding of how time spent in nature improves well-being, REI recently pledged $1 million to support the launch of a new initiative within the University of Washington’s EarthLab that will study the link between human health and time spent outdoors. The funds will support studies like the one Josh Brandon is contributing to on the benefits of wilderness hiking among veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

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