Connecting veterans with the lands for which they fought

Alexandra Freibott
ORISE Fellow at the Pacific Northwest Research Station, USDA Forest Service
September 11th, 2020 at 1:00PM
Veterans group rock climbing.
Veterans group rock climbing. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Outward Bound School.

Millions visit America’s public lands every year to have fun and get away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. In fact, spending time in nature can be truly restorative and research shows that nature and green spaces have a positive effect on human health and wellbeing. Veterans, especially, may benefit from nature-based therapies on public lands to relieve stress and symptoms of trauma endured during their time in service.

Monika Derrien and Lee Cerveny, research social scientists with the USDA Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station set out to explore outdoor programs for veterans on public lands and gauge support among other federal land managers for using the inherent therapeutic value of nature to benefit veterans.

“We heard repeatedly that trails were being used by veterans with Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other kinds of trauma, stress, or anxiety,” says Cerveny, “but we realized it was much more than people hiking long-distance trails.”

The variety of outdoor programming for vets surprised the researchers and extended to ways they could protect natural resources and improve recreation opportunities.

“There are also work and service-oriented programs where the goal may not be to summit a mountain, but to restore a riparian area or build a new trail,” explains Derrien. “There were even programs we weren’t necessarily thinking about when we started the project that were related to animal and horticulture therapies, like equine therapy and farming.”

Veterans group on a hike.
Veterans group on a hike. Photo courtesy of Sarah Martin.

Together with their colleague David Havlick of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Derrien and Cerveny inventoried existing outdoor programs for veterans in the U.S. They also interviewed leaders with the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and National Park Service, along with program organizers and participants, to identify ways to expand support and partnerships with such programs.

“We heard from several veterans that one of the benefits of these programs was that it helped them make the connection between protecting the country and protecting our public lands,” said Cerveny. “We heard a few people say, ‘Now we understand this is what we were fighting for, these public lands that our nation has.’”

This symbolic connection between veterans and the lands for which they fought can be a valuable part of nature-based therapeutic programs, made possible through partnerships between such programs and public land agencies.

Derrien and Cerveny are hopeful that the insights in their recently published paper on this work will help leaders and managers expand partnerships to support veterans’ outdoor recreation programs.

The researchers are now planning to expand their analysis to include recreation programs for active service members.

“By focusing on active service military programs, we can figure out how those connections to restorative, therapeutic experiences, behaviors, and practices can be developed and fostered even before people are in their post-military service period,” said Derrien.

“I think there’s lots of really great opportunity there.”