Can Nature Heal The Wounds Of War?

As a kid growing up in Medical Lake, Washington, Shawn Graves wasn’t much different than his buddies. As a self-described “outdoors type person”, he used to love to to ski, snowmobile, hike and fish. Just about anything that would get him outside. “Now,” he says, “I can’t do anything like that alone for fear of what might happen when I’m out there.”

It’s a fear that started worming it’s way into his psyche on a September day in 2004. He was a 28 year-old army sergeant stationed in Mosul, Iraq. While taking a break for lunch, he sat down to eat his sandwich in a lunch hall when the building exploded from a suicide bomber attack. Twenty-two people inside the building were killed instantly: 14 soldiers, 7 civilians and the bomber. Over 80 people were wounded in the bombing, including Shawn, whose chest and abdomen were torn apart by shrapnel. From that day on, fear has become an all too close companion; it’s that unwanted houseguest that never leaves.

“I had a bunch of intestines removed,” he says, recalling his surgeries like he’s reviewing a to-do list, “my esophagus repaired, my lungs had to be reinflated, take out a rib, they took out my gallbladder—basically, rework my whole insides.” For three weeks he was in a coma, in which he was terrorized by gruesome dreams and nightmares. Dreams that he says are impossible to describe. “My brain would dream actual events that were happening…I remember dying. I’d say the dreams bothered me more than the actual bombing event. The dreams were pretty rough, they haunted me for about a year.”

The surgeries left him feeling increasingly vulnerable and physically fragile “They had to leave my abdomen open for about two years, where it was split down the middle and where they put in some skin grafts. That was worrisome,” he says, “because, basically the only thing protecting my intestines from the outside world was a thin layer of skin. That fear of something falling into me, puncturing me.. it’s pretty rough.”

Graves medically retired in 2006 and returned to Medical Lake. He suffers from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) as a result of his combat experience. “The fear is the worst part,” he says. It’s a fear that tells him to stay inside, in the safety of his house when his heart says, “go outside.”

Some 1.6 million troops have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 and nearly one–fifth of the troops—about 300,000 men and women have returned reporting some form of post-traumatic stress disorders. It’s been called by different names—shell shock, battle fatigue—but PTSD has been around as long humans have been fighting wars. Still, it remains the unseen wound. A recent RAND study found that, mainly because of a stigma connected to PTSD, only about half of those afflicted seek treatment. Symptoms include intrusive thoughts and images like flashbacks and nightmares; sufferers often isolate and withdraw from the world, they’re irritable, easily startled and hypersensitive to sounds. Shawn Graves still has trouble sleeping at night and when he goes into crowded buildings and crowded spaces it causes him extreme anxiety.

Depression and the rate of suicide among veterans and active-duty personnel have been rising as well. Of the nearly 5,000 soldiers who’ve died in Iraq and Afghanistan, 15% killed themselves. Every day, five U.S. soldiers try to kill themselves. The VA estimates that every year 6500 veterans (of all wars) take their lives. That represents 25% of all suicides in the U.S.

Mike Ogle is a veteran himself who counsels combat veterans at Spokane’s Veterans Outreach Center. He says it’s impossible for someone who’s never served in the military to understand how difficult the adjustment from military to civilian life can be. “You know what the number one question they get asked all the time,” he says, ‘“did you kill anyone.’ Is that an appropriate question to ask someone? Because, you know something, when you kill people, you don’t feel good about yourself. We grew up learning that killing people is a bad thing. So you may not feel like you’re worthy of anything because you broke that commandment. What happens if someone asks you if you killed someone and you say, ‘yeah, I killed someone,’ you know what’s next? They say, ‘how could you do that?’ We don’t want to talk about it. Those are the things that haunt you. People ask stupid questions that haunt you.”

“There’s a saying in Iraq,” he says, stressing his point about the difficulties of readjustment. “Drive it like you stole it.” When driving a vehicle in Iraq, he says, “You go like hell, because if you get hit with an IED (improvised explosive device), your chances of survival are greater if you’re going at a higher rate of speed. It’ll save your life, so you’re driving like that all the time. When you come back here, you’re hyper-vigilant. A lot of people still have that driving-fast thing going on,” he says. “They’re still in survival mode.”

Along with counseling, Ogle is a strong advocate of getting veterans active in the outdoors. Working with professionals in the community, he organizes outings for fishing, kayaking, biking and climbing. He works with the Wounded Warrior Project, a non-profit organization that promotes healing and outdoor activities. For combat veterans, one of the biggest readjustment issues is a sense of isolation and detachment, a loss of identity and connectedness. “I think getting out there, learning to do new outdoor activities gets them away from the plastic culture—you know, the machines, video games, the mall—it shows that you can succeed.”

Shawn Graves got hooked up with the Wounded Warrior project thanks to Ogle and the Outreach Center. He participated in a couple of events, or “combat stress recovery retreats,” including a week in Texas, horseback riding, fishing, hunting, and 8 days fishing in Kodiak, Alaska. “It changed my life,” he says. “It’s a great thing to be able to get outside and not have to worry about anything but having fun. One of my problems was I secluded myself from the outside world. Half the battle is getting out of the house. This shows us that we’re not alone and it makes it a secure environment for me. It helps us reconnect with our brotherhood from the army. When we do events with each other, we feel normal.”

Along with the value of reconnecting socially, Graves feels comfort in connecting with the natural world. “Nature’s got a way of healing,” he says. “You get to see what this life is all about. You get to see the world as it should be.”

Another program is also helping vets put their lives back together while putting them on a career track for outdoor environment-related jobs. The Veterans Conservation Corps, a creation of the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs started offering post-9/11 veterans a path towards “green collar” jobs through a higher education program called the Veterans Environmental Academy. The 9-month program pays veterans a $1,000 a month stipend while pursuing a certificate through the Natural Resources program at Spokane Community College. They can choose from several career tracks: Natural Resource Management, Water Resources, Soils, Parks and Recreation and Wildlife and Fisheries.

Seth Maier, the program’s Spokane coordinator, says it’s been a lifeline for combat veterans returning home from war, many of whom continue to struggle with readjustment issues. “They’re coming from an experience that could have taken their life. Now they’re home and they start to isolate, sitting there, ‘I can’t get a job, so I’ll sit on my butt.’ It can snowball to the point where just getting out of their house gives them an anxiety attack,” he says. “Just getting them out in the fresh air is helping.”
Alan Christensen is one of 14 students enrolled in the program and it couldn’t have come at a better time. He just returned home this spring after serving seven months in Ramadi, Iraq, where he was an artilleryman and a provisional MP. His job was to escort convoys from the border to Baghdad. “Once you got out of the Anwar Province, that’s where all the funky shit starts to happen,” he says. “Roadside bombs, small arms fire, IEDs (improvised explosive devices), you name it.” He said he had “a kind of fatalist kind of feeling about it. If it’s my time, it’s my time. There’s nothing I can do about it. I was in the back seat, so if something happens it’s totally out of my hands. It’s one of those feelings like, ‘let’s take a page from the 91st psalm and let’s hit the road, man.’” Christensen was never physically wounded and after completing his tour he returned home to Spokane in April 2008.

Shortly after the euphoria of just being home wore off, he found himself struggling to find the answer to the increasingly heavy question of, “now what?” “I’m 42, I got a mortgage, a kid and a wife,” says Christensen, who just retired after 23 years in the Marine Corps which included several combat deployments. “When you’re over there,” he says, “your head is so far from reality it’s not even funny.” He had a vague plan of going back to school but said he got a rude awakening when he was told the new GI bill would not be funded until August 2009. He worked a number of low-paying jobs; factory work, office work, prison guard, but he says it felt like he was trying to put a square peg in a round hole. “All I know is I liked being outside, so I knew I wanted a job that would keep me outside.”

Christenson, who had been a marine for his entire adult life, was finding, like most veterans, that the transition from soldier to civilian was more than just trading in the uniform for a sweatshirt and a pair of Levis. “I was suffering an identity crisis,” he says. “My last day in the Marine Corps was a depressing day for me. It was a Sunday, I sat on the couch and I just channel-surfed, watching old movies and drinking beer. I felt like shit. For twenty-three years my identity was secure. I mean, I was somebody who they’d ask ‘what do you think.’ My opinion mattered. It was ingrained in my soul. For more than half my life I had been a marine, that’s really significant. I was just feeling at a loss,” he says. “I was adrift.”
Christensen, who says he does not suffer from PTSD, but was just having readjustment issues, had an epiphany, which he said cemented his decision to join the program. “It hit me hard one particularly lousy day. I was driving home after looking for a job and I pulled off the road by a little park along the lower Spokane River. I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up my Dockers slacks and I was just standing there in the water thinking ‘man, what am I gonna do?’ Then it just hit me, ‘this is what I want to do. I want to do something outdoors, in nature,that helps the environment that is a part of this. That’s what I want to do.’”

As the number of Veterans of the Global War on Terror (which has now lasted longer than World War II) continues to grow, so has the need for services. Many of which are realizing the value of nature as therapy. Programs such as Project Healing Waters (PHW), a program that sends wounded veterans on fly-fishing trips to help them recover both physically and emotionally continue to expand. It started in 2004 at Walter Reed Veterans Hospital by retired Navy Captain Ed Nicholson following an operation he had there. Its philosophy is based on the premise that getting out in nature and mending fly lines can also help to mend the lives of injured soldiers. Thousands of veterans come home broken, missing an arm or leg or suffering from traumatic brain injury. Programs like Project Healing Waters helps them realize they are still capable of doing things while in the setting of a trout stream. “We use fishing not just as a recreational pursuit but as adjunct to therapy,” says Nicholson, who hopes to establish a PHW at the Spokane VA.

On a recent, crisp fall morning, Seth Maier, whose Veterans Environmental Academy also lets veterans volunteer for local environmental activities, lead a group of 20 veterans out to Turnbull Wildlife refuge to plant some trees along a stream bed. The group works with different outdoor agencies on projects like stream restoration and habitat development. Two veterans from the program also worked at the Spokane River cleanup last month and prompted organizer Steve Faust of Friends of the Falls to say this: “These guys with the military training and discipline to stay calm and on-task are so valuable to us. We absolutely couldn’t do the clean up with out them.”

Maier’s enthusiasm about the value of being outdoors is infectious. “I’ve experienced it. I go out to the woods; it’s the only place I can get away. My mind’s not thinking about all the things that are stressing me out,” he says. “When I come out of the woods, I’m recharged.”

When asked for any examples of veterans healing through the connection with nature, he describes a scene he recently experienced. A group of veterans were out planting trees along a stream when he noticed one veteran was tying something to a tree branch. When asked what he was doing, the young veteran, who had recently returned from the war in Iraq, told him, “I’m naming this tree after my buddy who died. There’s not a day that I don’t see his face. He took his last breath in my hands. I think about him all the time and I can’t talk to him because he’s dead. So I thought maybe if I named this tree after him, I’ll be able to come back and talk to him again.” Maier never saw that soldier again, but he did see the tree recently and noticed the nametag was still there. He says for that young soldier to be able to return to this place and “see this tree grow and imagine how big it’s gonna be, that’s healing all by itself.”

It was Hippocrates, the father of medicine himself, who said, “Nature Heals.” Allen Christensen agrees. “I think you can learn a lot about life by watching nature,” he says. “The whole cycle of the seasons, and the cycles of life. I mean, things are born, and things live, then they die. And that whole process, it kind of puts your mind right.” In the Veterans Environmental Academy he chose to focus on water resources. “I realized what I value most is my ability to feel like I’m contributing something to society. And with this program, I realize water is important. All life begins with water. You have to have it.”

So far, nearly 30,000 U.S. troops have been wounded fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Add to that the 300,000 suffering from PTSD and consider the thousands more who are scheduled to return home in the next year. The individuals, who make up these statistics, and those who love them, understand what the war actually costs. “My wounds are invisible,” says Graves. “If you see me on the street, you would never know.” As a soldier, he said he was trained to feel that he could overcome any obstacle. But with an injury and PTSD, you don’t feel that way. “You’ve kind of been stripped of that internal strength,” he says. “Getting out there in nature, it helps you to kind of rebuild that.”

By Dan Egan


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