In An Outdoor Recreation Program, Veterans Find Healing and Friendship
At "recreational therapy" camps, outdoor activities and mindfulness help veterans with PTSD, sexual trauma, and other issues.
7,000 feet above sea level, Navy veteran Samantha Scully is trying to focus on her mental health.
Along with about a dozen other veterans, Scully, 51, is hiking in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles. The blue waters of Big Bear Lake are visible between pine trees and boulders that line the path.
"No phones, no electronics, just mountain time," she said. "Leave all that back down the hill. It'll be there when you get back."
Scully, a computer systems analyst, only recently sought treatment for a sexual assault she experienced in the Navy 27 years ago. Like a lot of women in her position, Scully stayed quiet about the assault and didn't take advantage of veteran resources when she left the military.
"I just thought, once you're out, you're out," she said. "I didn't think anybody would think about you other than Veterans Day."
Scully's "mountain time" is part of an activity sponsored by the non-profit group Higher Ground. The organization holds free "recreational therapy" camps for veterans and their families. Each camp combines outdoor activities with mindfulness and group processing sessions.
"It's a strategy to learn coping skills, to learn new influences that will improve quality of life, to learn new interests, develop relationships," said Lauren Terschluse, Director of Military Programs for Higher Ground's L.A. chapter. "So everything is a very intentional treatment modality."
Terschluce says Higher Ground tries to build each camp so the veteran participants really gel. They're re-creating a sense of unit cohesion and social support that's often missing after military service ends.
"Symptoms of depression being alleviated, realizing that there is hope because there are people out there and support systems out there," Terschluce said.
The organization began offering adaptive sports therapy in Sun Valley, Idaho in 1999, teaching disabled kids and adults how to ski. In 2005, Higher Ground started a recreational therapy program to serve returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. The group has opened offices in New York and Los Angeles in recent years.
Long after military veterans leave the armed forces, wounds from their years of service can linger.
Higher Ground campers are dealing with service-related conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, traumatic brain injury (TBI), physical disability, or - like in Scully's case - military sexual trauma.
For many campers, bonding with other veterans is the most helpful part of the week.
Leo Herod, 59, carries a white and gold chihuahua up the steep parts of the trail. Herod is transgender and presents as male.
Back in 1979, Herod was one of the few women firefighters in the Air Force and felt intense pressure to make an impression on the mostly male instructors and classmates.
"Then, when I got out of the military, I just disassociated from it completely," Herod said.
Abused as a child, Herod later turned to drugs, and now compares the gender transition experience to going through adolescence and puberty all over again.
"It was just a continual need to get out of my body, because there was so much pain in it," Herod said. "And when I found [Higher Ground], I'm like, Oh, thank God, because now I can come and heal myself."
Jesus Guzmán said he feels weird talking about military stuff around his civilian friends, because sometimes, "they don't get it."
He's 29 years old and just got out of the Army last fall. He's committed the date to memory.
"September 25th, 2017," he said. "I'm also the youngest guy here."
And Guzmán doesn't sugar coat things: he's had a rough couple of years.
His marriage broke up. He lost his best Army buddy to a car accident. He was kicked out of the service for testing positive for marijuana, and he picked a misdemeanor weapons charge.
Sleeping on his mom's couch, Guzmán spiraled into a deep depression.
"Losing the uniform, losing my family, it was very hard," he said. "The easiest thing would be for me to get on a skateboard, go down to the liquor store, and drink my troubles away."
For a while, he barely left the house.
Camp staffers said Guzmán was "high risk." If he continued on the same course, he could have spiraled further into mental health or legal jeopardy.
But according to Guzmán, the week of camping, sports, and hanging out with other veterans helped reverse the trend.
"In just a few days it's been a complete turnaround in how I look at things and how I perceive things," he said. "I'm definitely excited for all the friends I've made here."
About 2 months after camp ended, Guzmán started school in San Bernardino, using his G.I. Bill benefits to learn how to operate construction equipment. His favorite so far is the bulldozer because he finds it therapeutic to push dirt around, like working in a big sandbox.
And Guzmán still keeps in touch with a friend from camp, hanging out and fishing together.
He maintains the week with Higher Ground made a difference for him.
"It's not that a week out there, being in the woods and camping, is the ultimate fix for everything," Guzmán said. "But it can make all the difference if you approach it with an open mind."
The group follows up with participants for three years after the end of camp, and it offers a cash stipend for alumni who want to buy recreational equipment or fitness classes.
Guzmán plans to get a tandem kayak, so he can take his sons out fishing soon, too.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.