Veterans find community, healing through outdoor sports

The Front Country Foundation organizes skiing and surfing trips for veterans struggling to reintegrate into civilian society. Through the excursions, the foundation aims to cultivate a sense of closeness and solidarity between those who've experienced trauma.

Ryan Dorgan/Jackson Hole News & Guide/AP
Cam Fields (l.) and James Carelas joke together on a trip up the Bridger Gondola at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort on Feb. 14, 2018 in Teton Village, Wyo. After returning from active military service, Mr. Fields found that skiing and snowboarding helped him ease into civilian life.

Sitting at the bar at The Wort Hotel, Cam Fields can feel his social anxiety creep in as patrons pass by. It can be hard to talk to people who don't understand his experiences as a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.

Mr. Fields, originally from the Lake Tahoe, Calif., area, moved to Jackson in 2015 after six years as a corpsman in the Navy. He works at JH Sports in Teton Village, as a ramp agent for Skywest Airlines, and as a server at Hand Fire Pizza. He juggles three jobs to support his passion: a nonprofit to help fellow service members and veterans use sports to cope with internal wounds and reintegrate after war.

Fields has been skiing since he was 2 and snowboarding since he was 5. Even on deployment and during training, sports provided a sense of hope.

On challenging mountain warfare trainings he would point out, "Dude, if it snowed here, do you see that line we could do?" In the heat of Afghanistan, as friends shipped over pictures of themselves shredding the snow, he put together a makeshift wakeboard out of pallets and a tow strap, hooking it to the back of a Humvee, and surfing through the dust and dirt.

"It gives you something to look forward to," Fields said.

When he got out of the military Fields was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. He found that going to the US Department of Veterans Affairs just meant sitting through sessions with a therapist, reliving the trauma, and being sent home with pills.

"Imagine the worst experience you've ever had in your life," Fields said. "They want you to sit there for an hour and talk about it over and over and over and relive it for multiple weeks on end."

That didn't work for him. But what did work was hitting the slopes on his snowboard and, when that got boring, switching it up with surf trips.

"You can't be two places at one time," Fields said. "Whether you're biking, skiing, surfing, snowboarding, it helps pull you out of whatever negative head space you're in and helps you get back into that positive head space. It exhausts you mentally to the point where you can't think about anything else."

The VA reports that 10 to 18 percent of troops from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan develop post-traumatic stress, and even more suffer depression. Another report in 2014 found that 20 veterans a day died by suicide.

Fields wants to put a dent in those statistics by helping his fellow troops engage in activities that have worked for him and his friends, like surfing and skiing. After several years of taking guys on such trips and witnessing the effect, he joined with friends Barrent Dickinson and James Carelas to realize his vision of registering a nonprofit: the Front Country Foundation.

"We've had guys who've come out and their plan was to come out and get a free ski trip, go home, and kill themselves," Fields said. "By the end of the first day all they cared about was looking at the snow forecast for the next day.

"We're trying to give them that purpose and a reason to try again," he said.

On the typical Front Country trip the idea is for beginner skiers to start at ground school at Snow King or Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, riding the magic carpet.

Fields said it's entertaining to watch Marines get upset that their volunteer civilian instructors can out-ski them. But most of them pick it up pretty quickly and are prepared to venture into the backcountry after the first day. They are fighters and don't like to fail.

"A lot of times we see mastery on the first day," he said.

Lunch breaks are used for therapy for those who want it, Fields said. After the adventure they have a "huge fat barbecue," watch ski movies, play Nintendo 64, and hang out. Many don't make it that far, passing out on the couch. Often lodging and food is donated.

The effect skiing has on the veterans became clear as they hit the slopes at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort this month.

Fields met Mr. Carelas at a swim workout during training, and brought him onboard when he was looking to start Front Country. Carelas' official title, Purveyor of Stoke, fits him well. During a ski day at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort he danced up to the gondola line and let out hollers of joy while riding down the slope.

"Every time I get to ride with Jimmy he just pushes the stoke higher," Fields said.

Carelas said the trips rekindle a sense of brotherhood and belonging that soldiers search for after leaving the military.

"With these guys they don't have that stigma they might feel with a civilian or somebody they feel is not going to understand entirely," Carelas said. "With us they can say whatever they want. They feel more at home to do so even though they're total strangers at the time."

The sports help veterans reintegrate into civilian life by providing a new passion and a connection to the civilian world around them.

"It helps us open up and blend back in," Fields said. "They can walk into any bar, any store and be like, 'Dude, I surfed today,' and it helps them have that bond with the civilian, to be able to talk to somebody that hasn't had the same experience as them. It helps them reintegrate and move back into that community and feel that normalness a lot of them are looking for."

They plan to add biking this summer, a thrilling outdoor activity that is less seasonal and doesn't require travel to a particular type of terrain.

"Biking is going to be super cool because there's dirt everywhere," Fields said.

His ultimate long-term vision is for the organization to be fully funded, prescribed by the VA, and large enough to run trips out of multiple sites simultaneously.

"It's a tool," Fields said. "We want them to go home and be able to fight this on their own."

While veterans are never 100 percent healed, Fields and Carelas say, ski trips provide a light at the end of the tunnel, something to look forward to, and an assurance that things can get better.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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