Wilderness Expeditions Help Combat Vets Adjust to Civilian Life

Hiker walking through wilderness

Famous naturalist John Muir once said that "nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike." That is the guiding force behind the Wilderness Therapy program, offered by the group Warrior Expeditions.

The Warrior Expeditions organization organizes three- to six- month-long outdoor expeditions to help combat veterans heal the scars of war and adjust to civilian life. Past expeditions have included hiking the Appalachian Trail, paddling the entire length of the Mississippi River and bicycling cross-country. The expeditions even stop along the route for events organized by local communities and veterans groups to honor them and welcome them home.

Value in "Walking off the War"

Sean Gobin, the group's founder, hiked all 2,185 miles of the Appalachian Trail upon returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. The hike had a therapeutic effect on him, helping him process and come to terms internally with his military service. Realizing that others could benefit from similar experiences, he founded Warrior Expeditions.

Historically, military units experienced a lengthy journey home after fighting a campaign abroad. During this journey home, warriors would process and come to terms with their wartime experiences. But in today's age of modern transportation, military personnel can find themselves home within a few days of serving in a combat zone, immediately having to deal with creating a civilian life.

Many veterans can be busy trying to find a job, buy a house and work on personal relationships within days of returning home from years in a war zone. Spending a few months decompressing in the wilderness with other veterans before jumping headfirst into civilian life can be great for these veterans. This time can help them develop future goals and process their past experiences while gradually winding down from the "always on" emotional and physical demands of being in combat.

Just think, when you joined the military, you spent weeks or months in basic training or boot camp where you were shocked into the military life, your individuality taken away to become part of the military machine. When you got back to the civilian world, did two days of TAP training prepare you mentally for being a civilian again while living alone, with no social support group, and having to make decisions for yourself?

For many, the answer is no. That is why the group was created, to help combat veterans adjust and find their own path to civilian life. Obviously, walking from Georgia to Maine is a strenuous journey -- just like the journey from warrior to civilian, and that is the point.

Having a Mission and Working With Others

While day- or week-long outdoor treks can help one clear their mind, waking up every morning for 90 or 180 days and knowing you have to walk another 30 miles, bike another 50 or paddle a kayak for another eight to 10 hours puts you into an entirely different frame of mind, not unlike being in a combat zone for 180 days. This is something most civilians can't relate to, but Warrior Expeditions can, and that's why their program was created. The repetition and boredom of doing nothing but walking, biking or paddling every day for up to 180 days gives one lots of time to think, solve problems and make plans. For many, this is similar to military life - without the fear of being killed or the regimentation of military life.

Being part of a group of veterans who are all going through the same thing can help even more. An infantry assault Marine who is walking alongside an Air Force UAV pilot will soon find common ground. This helps build social skills, as well as helps participants learn about others in ways neither could have done while in the military.

Many towns along the way of each wilderness journey often have events planned for groups who pass through. These events can range from free lodging or meals, to actual parties for the veterans. These events are opportunities for interaction that can help in lots of ways as well.

Everything Is Provided, and the Program Provides Results

The non-profit organization provides participants everything they need to accomplish their Warrior Expedition. The group's generous sponsors and partners provide participants with some of the most highly rated equipment and clothing available from the outdoor retail industry; they also provide veterans with a monthly $300 stipend to purchase resupply items during their journey.

While there have been reports since the beginning of time that show outdoor activities help to cure the wounds of war, there is a lack of actual documented studies. Recent research shows that outdoor immersion helps to increase confidence, gives veterans better control over negative emotions, and enhances relationships with others.

All participants in Warrior Expeditions programs are requested to fill out mental health questionnaires before and after participating in the program. A study of participants has found that participation in the program leads to lower incidence of anxiety and depression, as well as PTSD.

To see more about one of the 11 different expeditions offered, or sign up for an expedition in the coming year, check out the group's website.

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