The Healing Power of the Outdoors for America's Veterans

Michael Reinemer
Team River Runner - credit Janet Everhard

On Wednesdays in the summer of 1946, vehicles packed with soldiers drove from O’Reilly General Hospital in Springfield, Mo. to the Taneycomo reservoir on the White River. The mission: deliver convalescing World War II veterans to the lake for a day in the great outdoors, catching fish.

Veterans fishing at the Joplin #31 ChapterVeterans fishing with the Joplin #31 Chapter in the 1940s.The trips were organized by Ernie Williams, a member of the Joplin #31 Chapter of the Izaak Walton League. He coordinated with Army nurses who traveled with the veterans and Red Cross workers who helped with logistics. Williams’ work with veterans was probably not the first and definitely not the last program the League has operated to benefit veterans across the U.S.

Hat from South Dakota fishing tripA hat from the South Dakota fishing trip.In Denison, Iowa, the West Central Chapter of the League has been hosting fishing trips for veterans for nine years. In June 2022, the Chapter organized a free week-long trip to fish for walleye at Platte Creek on the Missouri River in Chamberlain, South Dakota. The trip drew about two dozen veterans from Iowa and Nebraska and required a caravan of vehicles and boats. Boat owners and some junior members from the League also made the trip to assist.

The Iowa anglers had some luck landing walleye. Reliving a scene from The Compleat Angler where the central character, Piscator, takes his catch to a local alehouse, this band of anglers took their walleye to a restaurant in Chamberlain, which gladly hosted a fish fry for the veterans and their entourage of Ikes.

The tradition continues in other chapters. The Red Rose Chapter in Lebanon, Pa. holds a fishing program for veterans at the Lebanon VA Medical Center. The Chapter partners with the Lebanon County Federation of Sportsmen to provide what the Chapter calls “a few relaxing evenings of fishing.” Adam Hostetter, a life member of the Chapter, coordinates that event. For convalescing veterans from Walter Reed, the national military medical center in Bethesda, Maryland, the Rockville Chapter in Maryland has provided books and magazines and hosted days to fish and relax at the Chapter's lake for the vets and their families. 

Team River Runner offers paddling events for veterans and their families to promote health, healing, community purpose and new challenges. The League’s Cincinnati Chapter has worked with Team River Runner and the Izaak Walton League of America Endowment helped fund purchase of tandem kayaks.

These programs were designed primarily to honor veterans and offer them a chance to enjoy outdoor recreation they might not otherwise have. But over the years, evidence has accumulated that outdoor recreation can serve as therapy for wounded veterans. Some of those wounds are hard to see – and harder to heal.

Enthusiastic paddlers from the Team River Runner program in Cincinnati - credit Janet EverhardEnthusiastic paddlers from the Team River Runner program in Cincinnati.

Some Wounds Are Hard to Heal

In her 2017 book, The Nature Fix, outdoors writer Florence Williams says, “Every big war has its signature wounds,” from the Civil War to the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq. Terms like “shell shock” and “battle fatigue” were used to describe ailments affecting veterans of World War I and II, respectively. A common condition throughout these wars is what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which wasn’t officially recognized by the Veterans Administration until 1980.

The American Psychiatric Association says PTSD can occur in people who have “experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, or rape or who have been threatened with death, sexual violence or serious injury.” Persisting traumatic memories impair memory and the ability to focus.

Williams says more than one out of four veterans from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars experienced PTSD and that depression typically accompanied the PTSD. Signature wounds from those wars, she writes, are PTSD, traumatic brain injury caused by explosions and sexual assault. A lasting legacy of suffering for hundreds of thousands of veterans.

Outdoor Recreation as a Therapy for Veterans

Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF) is a non-profit incorporated in Maryland dedicated to rehabilitation, both physical and emotional, for injured and disabled veterans. It was launched in 2005 to introduce wounded service members to fly fishing. The vets in the initial program were at Walter Reed Army Medical Center recovering from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Project centers its outdoor experience around fly casting and tying, rod building, fishing trips and learning related new skills and abilities, at no charge to the participants. Since it began, the program has expanded nationwide. The Project says, “for many participants, particularly disabled veterans, the socialization, and camaraderie of the classes are just as important as the fishing outings and provide them a new activity.”

“We think it’s concentration over an extended period of time that actually has the rehabilitative effect.”Dick Barnett

One tireless volunteer and supporter of Project Healing Waters is Dick Barnett, a member of the Fredericksburg-Rappahannock Chapter of the Izaak Walton League in Virginia. For his leadership with wounded veterans, the League awarded Barnett the Judge John W. Tobin Award in 2016. In a 2017 interview, Barnett described the connection between fly fishing and recovery. “We think it’s concentration over an extended period of time that actually has the rehabilitative effect.”

An Idaho nonprofit called Higher Ground also provides outdoor adventure experiences for current or former members of the military who suffer from PTSD. In 2014, the group held its first all-women’s expedition, an 81-mile float trip down the Salmon River in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area in Idaho.

Williams, who accompanied the women on the trip, says the goal for experiences like that is to reduce trauma symptoms. “Adventure sports like kayaking provide a laser focus for an unfocused mind, as well as a welcome distraction from unwelcome thoughts.” The outdoor adventure, she concluded, was no panacea but definitely helped most of the veterans who made the trip and provided inspiration to continue similar strategies.

In recent years, several other organizations have also sprung up or expanded to meet the demand for veterans seeking a sense of renewal and normalcy after combat deployments. Outward Bound has offered outdoor adventures for veterans for about 15 years.

Sean Gobin served in the Marine Corps in deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. When he left the military after 12 years as an infantry rifleman and armor officer, he decided to hike the Appalachian Trail, which convinced him of the healing powers of the outdoors. In 2013, he founded a group called Warrior Expeditions to help veterans ease their transition after deployments through outdoor activities. He now serves as executive director there, and the group continues to lead outings for vets.

The medical literature reports clear anecdotal benefits of outdoor adventure experiences for veterans.

Nearing year 10 of operating Warrior Hikes, Gobin told Outdoor America, “We are running all of our Warrior Hike, Bike, and Paddle programs as scheduled. Demand continues to be high and we anticipate supporting another 40 veterans in 2023.”

The medical literature reports clear anecdotal benefits of outdoor adventure experiences for veterans, but not a clear cause-effect. Because experiences – the traumas as well as the efforts to recover – vary so much, it’s hard to measure the benefits the same way a drug or medical procedure would be tested and studied.

One veteran from a combat deployment in Afghanistan who suffers from PTSD and TBI told me that an extended camping trip into the nation’s western back country was – for him – far more effective than the medications he had been prescribed by a physician.

For its part, the Izaak Walton League and its members have been on the front lines of the many volunteers who have helped generations of veterans to reconnect with the great outdoors – and perhaps improve their health and outlook on life in the process.

The Compleat Angler: An artistic response to trauma in 17th century England?

Historian Marjorie Swann has written extensively about the life of Izaak Walton, who published his famous fishing book, The Compleat Angler, in 1653. During the decades before writing the book, Walton’s wife and eight of his children died. As an Anglican and active supporter of the royalist cause during the English civil wars (1640-1651), Walton faced threats and danger through a prolonged period of violence and upheaval.

In her introduction to the 2014 Oxford University edition of the Angler, Swann describes Walton’s book as “his artistic response to trauma, a search for meaning and hope in the wake of terrible anguish” and his attempt to answer the question: How should we live? “As a survivor of war and heartbreak, Walton turned to the natural world for his answer to this question and in the process created one of the most important, formative environmental texts in the English language.”

This article was excerpted from Outdoor America 2022 issue #4. Want more articles like this? Join the League and get four issues of our award-winning magazine every year.

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Top photo: Team River Runner in Cincinnati helps veterans get outdoors for canoe and kayak trips. Credit: Janet Everhard.

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