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Recreational Therapy for Injured Veterans

Sit-ski-VAST-NB-Camp-group Veterans cross country ski program at Pineland Farms.

More doctors may be prescribing outdoor recreational therapy instead of Xanax if the proposed Federal legislation entitled the Outdoor Recreation Therapy for Veterans Act (HR 2435) passes. Studies are showing evidence that outdoor recreational activities can be therapeutic. I met Veterans Ray Gilmore and David Binford recently at a ski industry meeting and they were engaging anyone who would talk with them about the Azimuth Check Foundation, which provides injured veterans and first responders challenging year-round athletic activities to create wellness in an atmosphere of camaraderie.

“Whether these Vets have seen or unseen injuries, they can find peace in the outdoors.” They feel that participation in activities such as alpine and Nordic skiing, snowboarding, kayaking, hiking, fishing, cycling, indoor rock climbing, wood carving and art, aquatics, golf, water skiing, stand up paddleboarding, archery, and even bowling will build self-esteem and accomplishment.

There are some Veterans and first responders who have experienced visual impairments, amputations and other physical and mental challenges who have discovered organizations that orchestrate recreational activities, which can positively impact their independence, well-being, and whole health through adaptive recreation therapeutic programs. Azimuth partners with other organizations such as the Veterans Adaptive Sports and Training, Adaptive Sports of the North Country, Ability Plus Adaptive Sports, Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports, and Northeast Passage.

Misha Pemble-Belkin of Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports’ Veterans Ventures program commented, “I’ve taken anti-depressants and done talk therapy but nothing I tried has worked - it was like my brain was still at war.” Different than working with healthcare providers in an office setting, this real world/real time approach to creating solutions for active and engaged living takes the guess work out of what happens when you go home or are discharged from care. The program employs certified and licensed recreation therapist practitioners with a strong history of working with individuals across the disability spectrum including individuals with physical disabilities, cognitive disabilities, and behavioral health needs.

Gilmore talked about difficulty “shutting the motor off whereby the adrenaline remains and has become toxic.” The recreational activities help to create new memories and meaningful relationships. Beside physical challenges many Vets are faced with what has been referred to during past wars as post traumatic stress (PTSD), combat fatigue, and/or shell shocked. While a stigma may remain about this condition, more Veterans are now acknowledging it and seeking help.

Some of these program participants express that they’ve have had enough of meds and therapy (for example cognitive behavioral therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, acceptance commitment therapy, etc.). Recreational programs can problem solving, a collaborative strengths-based approach, camaraderie supported transition, relevant and meaningful goals, and develop sustainable healthy behavior.

Trauma-focused psychotherapies are the most recommended treatment for PTSD. This treatment focuses on the memory of the traumatic event and its meaning. It is intended to help people process the traumatic experience by visualizing and talking or thinking about the memory to change toward helpful beliefs about the trauma. Eight to sixteen sessions are often recommended. One Vet referred to taking “meds” for his troubles which made him feel like a “zombie” and took away the passion and joy of life. That is not saying that suffering with PTSD issues will allow much passion and joy. But that Vet commented that participating in recreational programs and outdoor activities such as skiing, hiking, rock climbing has helped to instill periods of passion and joy in his life.

How does it work?

At Northeast Passage, a recreation therapist (RT) will meet with an individual to complete an initial assessment.  During this assessment, the RT talks about health conditions, interests, personal strengths, and local resources.  They will also use standardized assessment tools as part of a collaborative process to identify goals, and a plan for achieving them, while working together.

Follow up appointments are used to work on achieving these goals and during these appointments the vet and RT will be in the community actively engaged in recreation. At the same time, they’ll likely be creating community connections, learning about equipment, developing skills, and aspects of themselves that support continued active participation and a healthier experience.

Kristina Sabasteanski an Army Veteran runs programs at Pineland Farms’ Veterans Adaptive Sports & Training in southern Maine, which offers year-round programming each year for Veterans with disabilities. She stated “Last year we took Veterans and volunteers to Maine Huts and Trails in Kingsfield, ME. It was -9 F the day we left to go home and there wasn't a single complaint among the group. Sometimes the Vets crave challenges similar to what they experienced in the military such as harsh winter conditions, strenuous activities, etc.

Our yearly Biathlon Camp had 16 Veterans with disabilities - ranging from SCI, amputations, TBI, blindness, PTSD and TBI, and other orthopedic issues. “Many had never even seen snow before the camp and by the last day they cross country skied and competed in a biathlon race against each other. These trips and activities with fellow Vets allow them to share their experiences in the military and they realize they are not alone in their struggles.”

Retired SGSG Misha Pemble-Belkin of Vermont Adaptive Veteran had 170 Vet participants for more than a thousand activities including winter sports such as skiing, XC skiing, and snowboarding. It’s Vets helping Vets to learn these sports. According to Pemble-Belkin, “there was a study of 1,200 Vets who were split into a group taking three of the major meds and a group taking a placebo and it showed similar results. While the war experience was stored in your brain, outdoor recreation can provide some joy and passion that is a relief to the miserable times being home alone or unengaged.”

For more info:

Azimuth Check Foundation: acfne@azimuthcheckfoundation.org.

Pineland Farms VAST Program in southern Maine with Kristina Sabasteanski kristina@pinelandfarms.org

Northeast Passage in NH with David Lee david.lee@unh.edu

Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports Veterans Ventures with Misha Pemble-Belkin veterans@vermontadaptive.org

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