SNOWSHOE MAGAZINE FEATURED ARTICLE:

Winter Recreation Therapy for Injured U.S. Veterans

More doctors might 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. We discussed the Azimuth Check Foundation, which provides injured veterans and first responders challenging year-round athletic activities to create wellness in an atmosphere of camaraderie. They noted, “Whether these Vets have seen or unseen injuries, they can find peace in the outdoors.”

They feel that participation in activities such as snowshoeing, alpine and Nordic skiing, 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.

Providing Support Through Recreation

There are some Veterans and first responders who have experienced visual impairments, amputations, and other physical and mental challenges. To support these veterans, some have discovered organizations that orchestrate recreational activities. These activities can positively impact their independence, well-being, and whole health through adaptive recreation therapy programs.

US flag with snowy mountain in background

Photo by Adam Smotkin on Unsplash

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.

Support Outside Of An Office

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.”  Instead, this real-world/real-time approach is different than working with healthcare providers in an office setting. They create solutions for active and engaged living, which takes the guesswork out of what happens when you go home or are discharged from care.

The program employs certified and licensed recreation therapist practitioners. The practitioners have a strong history of working with individuals across the disability spectrum. Participants in the programs may include 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 provided by these organizations help to create new memories and meaningful relationships. Besides physical challenges, many Vets face post-traumatic stress (PTSD), combat fatigue, or shell shock. While stigma may remain about this condition, more Veterans are now acknowledging it and seeking help.

An Engaging Alternative 

Some 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.). As an alternative, recreational therapy programs can include problem-solving and a collaborative, strengths-based approach for veterans. They provide a camaraderie supported transition, relevant and meaningful goals, and help develop sustainable healthy behavior.

Trauma-focused psychotherapies are the most recommended treatment for PTSD. These treatments focus on the memory of the traumatic event and its meaning. They are intended to help people process the traumatic experience. Clients visualize and talk or think about the memory to change towards helpful beliefs about the trauma. A recommendation is often eight to sixteen sessions.

One Vet referred to taking “meds” for his troubles. He noted that the meds made him feel like a “zombie” and took away the passion and joy of life. However, the veteran also commented that participating in recreational programs and outdoor activities such as snowshoeing, skiing, hiking, and rock climbing has helped to instill periods of passion and joy in his life.

How Does Outdoor Recreation Therapy 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.  Then, they will use standardized assessment tools as part of a collaborative process. They identify goals and a plan for achieving them while working together.

Additionally, they use follow-up appointments to work on achieving these goals. During these appointments, the vet and RT will be in the community actively engaged in recreation. Thus, they’ll likely be creating community connections, learning about equipment, and developing skills. Also, they’re developing aspects of themselves, which support continued active participation and a healthier experience.

Recreational Program Activities For Veterans

Kristina Sabasteanski, an Army Veteran, runs programs at Pineland Farms’ Veterans Adaptive Sports & Training in southern Maine. Pineland Farms offers year-round programming 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 (harsh winter conditions, strenuous activities, etc.).

“Our yearly Biathlon Camp had 16 Veterans with disabilities – ranging from SCI [spinal cord injury], amputations, blindness, PTSD, TBI [traumatic brain injury], 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. [They] realize they are not alone in their struggles.”

Retired SGSG Misha Pemble-Belkin of Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports Veterans Ventures had 170 Vet participants for more than a thousand activities. They participated in winter sports such as skiing, XC skiing, and snowshoeing. 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. [They] 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 Information

Azimuth Check Foundation: acfne@azimuthcheckfoundation.org

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

Northeast Passage in New Hampshire with David Lee: david.lee@unh.edu

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

A modified version of this article first appeared at XCskiresorts.com

Read Next: Adaptive Snowshoeing For Individuals With Disabilities

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