Boots in the Woods

Throughout much of my career, I've worked to introduce children to the outdoors. On a weekly basis, I have seen how time spent outside builds confidence, boosts health and sparks enthusiasm for learning. It's wonderful to witness how much nature can give our kids... and it's just as rewarding to see how much kids can give back to the world around them.

In recent years, the outdoor center that I lead (IslandWood) has extended our services to many new audiences, including military veterans and their families. I have written in the past about the role nature can play in helping veterans and their families heal in the face of physical and mental health challenges associated with combat and long deployments. Recognizing the restorative power of the outdoors, organizations like the National Military Family Association, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) and the Wounded Warrior Project hold family programs in natural settings across the country.

There is hard evidence behind this strategy: A 2013 report prepared by the University of Michigan found that vets who participated in outdoor recreation activities reported significant improvements in psychological well-being, social functioning, and outlook on life.

Clearly, nature has plenty to offer veterans and their families. However, what I find particularly inspiring is how much vets and their families can offer nature and each other. This notion recently came to life in a short film in which veterans talk candidly about how the outdoors has helped them find a new mission in the outdoors.

Consider the perspective of Garett Reppenhagen, a former Cavalry Scout in the U.S. Army:

Getting involved in conservation campaigns, you gain new skills, gain new leadership abilities, and you gain a new mission. There are tons of public lands that are in jeopardy every day. And what better voice is there than an American war veteran to stand up and say, we have to make sure these places are here so my children and my grandchildren have the experiences I've had?

Sarah Roberts, who spent five years in the U.S. Army, including 15 months as a company commander in Iraq adds:

Just because you take off your uniform doesn't mean you lose the identity of who you were. You can take all of those awesome things that you have learned in the military and tie them into something that is going to empower people to connect with the outdoors, make their communities better, show we're stewards of the environment... but also demonstrate that veterans are leaders. We're not victims.

That idea -- veterans helping other veterans make a difference in the outdoors -- is now leading to real action. In October 2015, military and civilian leaders from across the country came together to develop a set of recommendations that political leaders in Washington State could use to empower military veterans and their families through outdoor engagement. The report from this Action Summit addresses issues such as job training, recreation, and conservation; and it can be used as a template for other states who wish to use the outdoor economy to support returning vets.