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Veterans get release from PTSD in the outdoors

Initiatives help veterans recovering from PTSD or other war-related injuries to find peace in the outdoors

Many combat veterans have found relief from symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder in the wilds of New Mexico.

Pete Benavidez, 42, of Belen, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, goes fly fishing in the San Juan River or at Santa Cruz Lake almost every other week, with his wife, Cindy, who is also his caregiver.

Benavidez has been diagnosed with brain injuries from two separate wartime explosions and post traumatic stress disorder.

Getting out
The Sierra Club Mission Outdoors offers outings through its Military Families and Veteran’s Initiative as well as for other individuals and families who want to explore New Mexico.
Visit or for schedules and contacts.
Project Healing Waters:

“I catch the fish and give them a kiss and then I release them,” he says. “Even if my line gets all tangled up, just sitting on a rock in the river eases me. It’s so calming. You get focused on what you’re doing, and its a snowball effect. I feel better for the rest of the week.”

According to a June issue of “Stars and Stripes,” reporting from a 2008 Rand Corporation report, more than 300,000 veterans who deployed from 2001 to 2008 had PTSD or major depression, and a partially overlapping 320,000 suffered a probable traumatic brain injury. Symptoms of PTSD include intense unwanted memories, nightmares and terrors, insomnia, anger, anxiety and avoidance.

Benavidez says he found fly fishing and fly-tying at Project Healing Waters, a national nonprofit group that works locally with New Mexico VA Health Care System.

Michelle McKenzie, the lead recreation therapist at the New Mexico VA, says that many veterans have some physical trauma, like a missing limb, and PTSD.

“Healing Waters is extremely beneficial. They focus on something that nurtures them,” she says. The VA offers many fitness, arts and relaxation programs and cycling. She hopes to start a wheelchair basketball team and adaptive golf, if she finds enough volunteers.

“We’re the bridge back to the community,” she explains.

Dave Patton, who retired from the U.S. Air Force several years ago, made creating a local chapter of Project Healing Waters one of his first retirement priorities.

Patton, a Vietnam veteran, says, “Fly fishing is therapeutic. When you’re out there on the river you are concentrating on what you’re doing. Whether you have PTSD or a physical issue, you have to put that aside while you’re fishing. It’s clarifying and very healing.”

Patton says he and other volunteers have about 20 vets through the VA each year who meet regularly to tie flies, to practice casting and then to fly fish, often at the Brush Ranch on the Pecos River.

Peter Ossorio, also a Vietnam War veteran and a retired U.S. assistant attorney general, says outdoor recreation and his wife saved his sanity.

He now lives in Las Cruces with his wife, Jean, and advocates to protect and conserve the Organ Mountains and surrounding area, where they often hike and camp.

“I want to ensure that another generation returning from war will have plenty of places to hike, hunt and camp. It’s important for people to have wild places where they can go to be on their own.”

In 1968 during the Tet Offensive, “I was nearly killed in a mortar attack. The man behind me was killed.”

He recalls that for months after the mortar attack he would dig a grave-sized hole, just big enough for his cot: “With my body below ground it would take nearly a direct hit to harm me.” But soon his chain-of-command ordered him to stop because they said it was bad for morale.

When he returned for leave in the States, his wife, Jean, had arranged for them to stay in a remote cabin on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, where they walked the deserted beaches and he healed a little from the war.

“I’m pretty lucky. My wife is really smart. I’ve been married to her for 47 years. My personal readjustments were dependent on her ability to adapt and be patient.”

Stacy Bare, the Sierra Club’s Mission Outdoors director, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and a Bronze Star recipient, said rock-climbing in Colorado helped him come to terms with his own PTSD.

After returning from Iraq, Bare went to graduate school. Although he didn’t like acknowledge it, he was suffering.

He ran into a friend from the military in Colorado who encouraged him to try rock climbing, which offered a way for Bare to integrate his war experiences.

“I had a lot of tough questions to deal with. With rock climbing you have to be 100 percent in the moment. We are all brothers and sisters on the rope,” he says, adding that the camaraderie and trust he finds rock climbing are very similar to those positive experiences of military service.

Bare says he came to work for the Sierra Club Mission Outdoors to help other vets reconnect to the natural environment because he knew how healing it could be.

He was first with the program’s Military Families and Veteran’s Initiative.

Through the program, the Sierra Club has partnered with the University of Michigan to research the benefit of outdoor experiences on veterans’ mental health.

The 18-month study will follow 120 veterans before and after six-day excursions. They range from fly fishing, kayaking and white-water rafting to backpacking and paddling.

One of the study’s researchers, Rachel Kaplan, a professor of environment and behavior, says, “The empirical literature is substantial with numerous studies documenting a diversity of health and well-being benefits related to the nearby natural environment.”

Bare says if the study shows a benefit for veterans’ mental health, it could help bring outdoor recreation to more veterans sooner.

“I want vets to know that they can come home and move on with their lives. Service doesn’t have to be their life’s single defining moment. That ultimately what they learned does translate,” he says. “I learned that from the outdoors. The outdoors does great things for everybody.”