These injured military veterans, some of whom have lost a leg or an arm or their sight, also come for the camaraderie, the friendship. “Recreational therapy” is only part of the cure.
Camp Patriot, a nonprofit group started by Micah Clark in 2006, gives a hand up to injured US military veterans who are struggling by helping them make new friends while on outdoor adventures.
The program’s motto is “giving back to those who have given.”
Mr. Clark, a US Navy veteran, sees Camp Patriot as a way of paying off a debt to those who were injured as they fought to protect the United States.
“The only reason our country’s documents mean anything is because these guys signed their name to a blank check to the United States government that says ‘up to my life, I’ll defend those documents,’ ” Clark says. “Without someone picking up a weapon and standing post, those papers are [worthless]. I say why don’t we support these guys.”
The 140-plus veterans who have gone on Camp Patriot outings receive a psychological boost, a lift that leaves them saying in amazement “I can do that!” Then they ask themselves “What else can I do?”
In June, Clark organized a three-day event on the Columbia River that included fishing and a 24-mile kayaking trip.
Dominic Ferraro, one of the four veterans on the trip, often chatted as he paddled along the chilly and swift Columbia River about 30 miles outside Richland, Wash. As he soaked up the scenery, including the beautiful rolling hills that rise above the river, conversation with fellow vets began to flow, too.
“You can feel at ease,” says Mr. Ferraro, who lives in Walla Walla, Wash. “I enjoy just coming back to hang out and talking with guys who are like-minded. There’s a camaraderie.”
There’s also a sense that he’s just with friends, not being observed by counselors.
The way other veterans “think is the way you think,” Ferraro says. “You can trust them because they’ve been through it. We’ve all been to war. What you’ve gone through a civilian can’t fathom. But these guys do. It’s time for me to unwind and relax.”
Building relationships is a big part of these outdoor adventures. The program also tries to help veterans focus on what they can do, not what they can’t.
Jesse Williams, a US Army veteran who served three tours in Iraq, was among those on the kayaking trip down the Columbia River. During a terrorist attack on his third deployment in Iraq, a semitrailer truck going 55 miles per hour slammed into his Humvee, crushing his skull. Three times while in the hospital he was considered dead; he was put into a medically induced coma for a month in September 2009. In a surgical operation, 44 percent of his skull was replaced.
Now Camp Patriot is the prod Mr. Williams says he needs to “get out and connect.”
“Being a homebody, it’s just good to get out of my apartment,” says Williams, who lives in Idaho Falls, Idaho. “It’s nice to get out and socialize with people with similar backgrounds and experiences. Doing something physical is helpful in a lot of ways,” both physically and emotionally.
Williams, who will begin college classes in the fall and plans on going into a house rental business with his brother, has a message he wants to share with injured vets. He’s an example of hope, he says.
He’s gone through the anger and the withdrawal. “I’ve gone through all that in large quantities,” says Williams, who received a medical discharge from the Army in October 2011. “I have a lot of experiences that would be beneficial for a lot of folks.”
His biggest mistake, he says, had been dwelling on and regretting the past instead of focusing on the future. “That’s been probably one of my toughest battles,” Williams says. “Trying to move [on] from the regret.”
Meanwhile, what Matt Daniels, a US Army veteran from Niagara Falls, N.Y., likes about Camp Patriot and the kayaking trip was what didn’t happen. No counselor was there asking questions, probing into his life and his past.
“So often you’re forced to sit down and look back and recap,” says Mr. Daniels, who was injured when his Humvee hit an improvised explosive device. “I was relieved that there was no one here forcing me to talk – talking to some guy who sits behind a desk and knows nothing about the Army experience.” And while vets talk with other vets about their experiences, “that’s not a counseling session.”
When Clark himself got out of the US Navy in 1997, he wasn’t sure what to do next. But as friends were killed or injured fighting in Iraq in subsequent years, Clark, a lifelong avid outdoorsman, began thinking about starting an outdoor adventure outreach for veterans injured in combat.
“The outdoors is a good starting point to decompress,” Clark says.
In the first eight years of Camp Patriot, Clark has planned hunting, hiking, kayaking, and fishing trips all across the Northwest US. His next goal is to purchase a 150-acre ranch in Montana that includes five cabins, a 16-acre pond for fishing, and miles of trails.
“The ranch will bring us to a whole different level,” Clark says. “What I’m hoping to do is bring 300, 500 vets through the program in a year with volunteers.”
Over the years Clark has brought a one-legged Army veteran up 14,409-foot Mt. Rainier, taken an injured Vietnam veteran fishing, and accompanied a blind Army veteran on a hike.
It’s by doing – hiking, fishing, hunting, or riding a horse through the woods – that veterans discover that they can do more than they thought they could. The focus turns to what’s next, not what has happened.
Camp Patriot helps vets see that the injuries they suffered in the military don’t have to define them.
“You do your best to move on,” says David Hartman, an Army captain who injured his back fighting in Iraq in 2004. “It’s part of what is now me. But you move on. It’s filling your life with new amazing things, as opposed to dredging it all up. It’s still there. But you’ve got to move on.”
Mr. Hartman said Camp Patriot helps injured veterans understand that.
“Just being outdoors is good therapy,” he says. “We call it fresh-air poisoning. It’s just good to get away.”
Clark says one goal of his program is to challenge veterans to learn new ways of thinking in order to overcome their wounds. He calls it making a “curable change.”
“You can get caught up with depression and hatred, asking why did I sign up?” Clark says. “Why did this happen to me? But you’ve got to live your life in honor of those who died. They’d want you to live your life.”
When his Montana ranch gets going, part of the recovery program for injured veterans will include Bible study led by pastors visiting from across the country, Clark says. And he plans to establish a network of churches that veterans can connect with when they return home.
“I can’t stay in contact with every vet that comes through here,” Clark says. “So my plan is to have these ministers come up and do a Bible study. When [the veterans] get home to Texas [or wherever], they can reach out to them.
“The church becomes the support mechanism. We’ll be a conduit to care.”
• To learn more about Camp Patriot, visit www.camppatriot.org.
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