Healing through therapeutic adventures

Elizabeth Howe
August 24, 2018 - 1:42 pm

Photo courtesy of SCMO

“There’s nothing really fancy about it. It’s just getting people to go outside,” said Aaron Leonard, veteran outdoors representative for Sierra Club.

Sierra Club has been working since 1892 to get people to do just that. Leonard joined the club in 2012 to tailor this experience and these therapeutic benefits to veterans, developing Sierra Club Military Outdoors (SCMO).   

Sierra Club is the nation’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization with 3.5 million members and supporters. The nonprofit has worked to protect millions of acres of wilderness and organizes more than 20,000 trips into that wilderness each year.

“If you look at the therapeutic adventure and outdoor industry you’ll see it’s a billion dollar industry,” Leonard said. “It’s been very successful in a lot of ways and helped a lot of people.”

Specifically, Leonard has focused these efforts on veterans. Leonard served in the Army from 1987 to 2014 and deployed numerous times throughout his service. He witnessed firsthand the effects of deployment environments on younger servicemembers.

“We know that older folks aren’t as affected by the traumas of those environments — we simply have more life experience and we’re a little more resilient,” said Leonard. “What I saw with the younger population — especially kids that were joining the Army for patriotic reasons — we were exposing them to these situations with constant stressors and they really weren’t equipped to deal with that.”

Back home, Leonard stayed in touch with some of those servicemembers and watched three or four years of service overseas change the outcome of an individual’s life.

“I watched people crash and burn,I watched people I know take their own lives, get thrown into prisons, become homeless, become addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs and illegal drugs,” said Leonard.

Towards the end of his time in the Army, Leonard went on an Outward Bound trip — an organization similar to Sierra Club that takes advantage of the therapeutic benefits nature has to offer.

“Around 2012, I was finishing up a deployment with the First Cavalry Division and I signed myself and some colleagues up for an Outward Bound veterans expedition,” said Leonard. “When I went on this Outward Bound trip I got hooked on this idea that we could use nature to help people make that step from the military to a purposeful civilian lifestyle.”

Leonard immediately started working towards this goal. Two years later, he retired from the Army specifically to focus on developing this practice of therapeutic adventure for veterans. Not long after, Sierra Club hired him to continue developing these practices with the help of their resources.

“What we do is we focus our efforts at the grassroots community level, and we create groups of veterans who do things together outdoors,” Leonard explained. “When veterans or people in the military get together, there’s a natural flow of conversation that occurs. They start talking about things that they’ve been wanting to talk about for a long time — they just haven’t had the right crowd.”

Leonard and SCMO focus on groups of veterans that may already be familiar with each other through support groups or hospital care. There’s also a focus on developing trips that overcome specific veteran-related barriers. For example, Leonard recently took a group of veterans who are also single mothers on an outdoor rock climbing trip with their kids.

“There’s a whole group of people in our country who can’t get outside for one reason or another,” Leonard said. “They have barriers that have been established in some way. The single mother population is least likely to participate in anything that we do because they have barriers that are bigger than some others. We work with those barriers. We eliminate them, if only just for this one trip.”

Photo courtesy of SCMO

Over the course of a few days, Leonard has seen tremendous changes in the veterans who choose to participate.

“By the third, fourth, fifth day there can be an enormous amount of progress without having a therapist,” Leonard said. “They come out the other end of that experience and they just feel better. We can measure an overall change in their sense of belonging and their sense of loneliness, which we know is a leading cause of suicide.”

When asked what his favorite part of working with SCMO was, Leonard explained what it’s like to witness these transformations.

“I’ve seen a very lonely, very reclusive veteran, who you can tell doesn’t want to be around anybody. They’ll come in on day one and say they don’t know if they’re going to stay the night, and by the third day they’re just ecstatic to be there,” Leonard said. “It’s watching veterans who have isolated themselves willingly show up to a group event like that, go through the process with everybody, and start to re-engage with society. It’s extremely important.”

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