Pilot program takes veterans into Tonto National Forest for wilderness hikes meant to challenge the body and enrich the soul
The wilderness therapy program Huts for Vets allows veterans to commune with nature in the Colorado Rockies and experience a perspective shift to more fully integrate with civilian life.
Now Arizona State University's Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement is adopting that model, swapping the mountainous Rockies for Arizona’s Mogollon Rim.
They are calling it the Arizona Warriors’ Wilderness Journey, and it's showing great promise for ASU veterans.
“It’s been a healing process for me, because it’s hard to put yourself in a vulnerable situation because it’s uncomfortable,” said Melvin Cruz, a public service and public policy major and Army veteran who saw combat in Iraq.
Cruz was one of 14 participants in the Arizona Warriors' Wilderness Journey pilot program. “Veterans often like to control their environments but this opportunity allowed me to let people in, which has been a long time coming.”
And so has the journey.
Offered by ASU’s Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement and funded by the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services as made available through the Arizona Veterans’ Donation Fund, the four-day retreat (Oct. 29–Nov. 2) was several years in the making.
ASU veterans have participated in Huts for Vets since 2018. Based in Aspen, Colorado, the program has offered men and women a total immersion in nature, literature-based philosophical exploration, contemplative thought and camaraderie, with a curriculum designed for reflection, introspection, resilience, empowerment and even transcendence at 12,000 feet.
Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now
“As a species, man has lived in wilderness settings a thousand times longer than it has in an industrial setting. Wilderness offers a homecoming to the nurturing womb of our common genesis,” said Paul Andersen, Huts for Vets founder and executive director. Andersen started the nonprofit in 2013 with support from the Aspen Institute, an international think tank and global forum that has attracted presidents, statesmen, diplomats, judges, ambassadors and Nobel laureates to the Rockies. “Nature is about connecting with a sense of self, and it can defined by a natural wilderness setting. It’s healing for veterans because nature works on the mind, body and spirit, especially for veterans who engage with a peer group of qualified listeners.”
Andersen initiated the Aspen Institute's Nature and Society Executive Seminar in 2004 for corporate executives, policymakers and educators because he wanted them to have a deeper understanding of our relationship with nature in order to make more enlightened decisions on their boards. Even though these powerful people had to trade a soft pillow and comfortable bed for a bunk in a cabin, many found that exposure to wilderness was reinvigorating and afforded a new sense of purpose. Researchers have also found that nature immersion can reduce stress and cortisone levels, slow down heart rates, and improve various functions of the immune system and brain activity.
The Japanese term for this “shinrin-yoku,” which translates literally to "forest bathing" and is a medical prescription for Japan’s often overstressed work force. Physicians there often prescibe shinrin-yoku by guiding patients to Japan’s old growth forests for therapeutic healing in what is considered one of the most industrialized nations in the world.
After reading an article based on a 2016 report published by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Andersen felt military veterans returning home from service or combat could benefit from this practice. The report, which reviewed and analyzed 55 million veterans’ records over a 35-year period, estimated that almost 20 veterans per day were being lost to suicide. Today, that number is up to 22 veteran suicides a day.
A protester of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, Andersen felt compelled to take action.