Commentary

The power of nature inspires and heals

Many of you have been there. During a field exercise or a land navigation course, your mind is on the mission and yet you’re surrounded by some incredibly tranquil outdoor scenery. Maybe it’s a breathtaking view overseas on a deployment. For a few seconds, standing on a rocky outcrop, lakeside, or deep in the woods, you’re inspired and remind yourself to return to something “like this” but on your own time and without the pressure or stress of the job.

It’s no secret the outdoors is a healing balm for mental stress and for many, the mental wounds we carry. Stepping outside for coffee on the porch, a short hike by the lake, or setting out for an overnight backpacking trip with your battle buddy or family all have a way of calming the chaos of daily life and helping us hit that reset button.

Earl Shaffer was credited as the first to hike the entire Appalachian Trail in a single season. A former U.S. Army radio man during World War II, many thought he was crazy for doing such a hike. When asked why he did it, he simply stated that it was to “walk the war out of my system.”

Many parks, forests, and wilderness areas offer places for everyone to connect to nature’s therapeutic power. As our nation continues to navigate through its challenges and many yearn for some sense of normalcy, we all have an opportunity to turn inward for reflection and step outside into nature to heal what troubles us.

For 27 years, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) has supported surviving family members, those grieving the loss of their loved one who served in our nation’s military, and continues to advocate for their needs. Through years of multi-day expeditions in the wilderness, TAPS has seen firsthand how intentional connection with the natural world impacts the way we grieve as well as the way we choose to live and ultimately thrive.

“The goal is simple: help our network of surviving military families and friends of TAPS get outdoors, breathe in the fresh air and utilize the tools we have to support their journey to healing along the way,” says Rachel Hunsell, program manager for outdoor engagement at TAPS.

Recent news announcing free access to national parks for veterans and Gold Star families will certainly help. “We’re proud to work with TAPS in developing opportunities to experience our nation’s public lands and waters and the healing power of nature for those who’ve served and sacrificed for our great nation,” says Ivan Levin, director of strategic partnerships at the National Park Trust.

Along with a new online series launched by TAPS, A Breath of Fresh Air, outdoor programs focus on tools like grounding techniques through nature’s metaphors, how the changing landscapes of the natural world change the inner landscapes of our hearts and minds. Programs offer peer support every step of the way, creating a sense of safety to step outside comfort zones, allowing us to feel understood and accountable.

“A shared adventure — be that summiting a mountain, hiking the backcountry or reflecting during a campfire — provides powerful and transformative opportunities to begin or make progress on a healing journey while gaining perspectives from a supportive community,” said Garin Carpenter, Navy vet and REI adventure travel manager of customer service and sales. “REI adventure travel has been a proud TAPS Expeditions Program partner since 2016. In collaboration with TAPS, we’ve hosted survivors on numerous hiking and paddling trips.”

TAPS Youth Programs also relies on outdoor spaces and volunteer Military Mentors to provide one-on-one support for our bereaved military children, teens and young adults. Military Mentors — all active duty, retired, and veteran service members — play a vital support role because of their outdoor experiences in the military.

“Our long-standing veterans programs and recent partnership with TAPS have been excellent in bringing peer-based support to an outdoor adventure that reinforces team-building skills and develops lifelong bonds among the expedition crew,” says Eli Fox, outreach coordinator at Outward Bound California.

Outdoor experiences reduce mental fatigue, inspires, and helps us become better individuals.

The formula is simple and the benefits can be long-lasting and life-changing. Find a buddy. Find some time. Go spend it outdoors.

Rachel Hunsell is program manager for TAPS. Tony Paz is director of outdoor engagement at TAPS.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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