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New VA Program Investigates Outdoor Therapy for Veterans

The Accelerating Veterans Recovery Outdoors Act was passed last month by former President Donald Trump. It was part of a legislative package called the Veterans COMPACT Act of 2020 that received bipartisan support.

The bill’s focus is aimed at helping our veterans with both exercise and their mental health needs. Specifically, there will be a VA task force created to investigate the potential benefits of outdoor recreation, as a form of alternative therapy for veterans. Some advocates for such programs believe that, in the not-too-distant future, outdoor therapy could be prescribed as an alternative to the pharmaceuticals and traditional approaches to therapy.

The legislation was spearheaded by two former Navy SEALS, Dustin Kisling and Josh Hespersen. They championed the law and began from the ground up, working with friends, family, and colleagues, encouraging them to contact members of Congress and push for the bill’s passage.

Kisling has called the legislation “potentially life-saving,” and highlights the staggering statistics around suicide rates among veterans. A 2020 study by the VA found that an average of 17 veterans committed suicide every day in 2018, more than 6,400 a year.

“If something like this gets enacted and they recognize the outdoor therapeutic approach, it has the potential to make great changes,” said Kisling. “If advancing this option can save one life, then I’m passionate about it.”

Kisling and Jespersen’s Veteran’s Outdoor Advocacy Group has been active since early 2019 and promotes outdoor therapy as a viable and legitimate form of treatment for veterans.

With 37% to 50% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans living with diagnosed mental disorders, an alternative approach to treatment could potentially help thousands. If the VA’s task force brings back promising results for outdoor recreation therapy, costs for programs like Kisling and Hespersen’s would be covered, just as prescriptions are by the VA.

Furthermore, Kisling and Hespersen are not the only ones exploring outdoor recreation as an option. Former Navy corpsman Cam Fields has pioneered a form of outdoor recreation for veterans that involves skiing and snowboarding. His Front Country Foundation is committed to providing the skill set veterans need to overcome traumas. Programs like Fields’ could be among those covered by the VA if the study yields promising results.

“What we are hoping to see is it becomes more of a thing, so vets don’t feel pressured to take a pharmaceutical,” Fields said. “A lot of people just think of therapy as siting in an office, but you can get outside, bike, climb, ride. It’s just, not being confined in four walls,” he says, advising, “Let your mind and soul breathe.”

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