I want to begin by asking your forgiveness for my pun and reference to the “Lord of the Rings” series of books by J.R.R Tolkien. What can I say, I can’t really help it. Aside from being a Disabled Veteran, I’m also a bit of a geek. Plus, the title seemed appropriate for today’s article. The point of this article is twofold; First, I want to give you a little insight into my experience with recreational programs such as Operation Climb On (OCO), and then discuss how my participation in these kinds of programs has been helping me with the transition to civilian life and managing the symptoms of PTSD and associated mental health issues in my own life. I will wrap up with what I see OCO being able to provide for myself and you, as you investigate and try to find your own path to reintegration and healing.
My first experience with recreational programs being used as a therapy method came in 2008, when I was asked and accepted the opportunity to participate in Rivers of Recovery (ROR); which used fly fishing as a method of helping veterans with PTSD and other mental health disabilities. This came 5 years after my medical discharge, 5 years of wandering through life feeling like I was lost in the woods, and 5 years after I tried to take my own life. During this time, I was receiving treatment at the VA Medical Center, and like many of you might relate to, I was taking a veritable salad bar of medications to treat just about every symptom I presented with. I can tell you that personally, I was skeptical about what ROR could do except give me a free weekend to learn how to fly fish. Needless to say, the first couple of hours were spent at the cabin getting to know the other guys there - a Vietnam Veteran, A Navy Dive Master that served with Seal Team 3, two Iraq Veterans, and me. Once introductions were done, you could feel the tension ease in the room and I think everyone slept relatively well (after a couple of drinks too).
The next morning was one of the most peaceful days I can remember during or since the service at that point, and that was just the purpose that ROR had in mind: Get me to stop focusing on the other noise in my head because I was focused on the environment; stop looking at the mountains around me for concealed threats; be involved with the present moment (which included 13 trout that day). In a nutshell, at the end of the weekend I had made new friends, learned a new skill, and slept better than I had done in years. I am proud to say that I had participated in this program for 3 years, and performed as an ROR peer river guide for most of that time.
This had a profound impact on me, giving me a renewed love and interest in the outdoors, and the peace it can provide - as well as reducing the number of medications I was taking to 1/3 of my original daily intake. Since then, I have completed my Bachelors in Environmental Science with a concentration in Fish and Wildlife Management. I am preparing to enter Graduate School to learn to manage programs like Rivers of Recovery and Operation Climb On, to continue to serve my country by serving those like myself.
I know you are probably asking how Operation Climb On and rock climbing is related, or how it can help. I will begin by saying that I and many of the other OCO members know what you are going through, and that fact alone makes this a journey worth starting. I have been around many veterans (surprisingly enough, disabled civilians feel the same) that have talked about people not understanding us, what it feels like to lose your buddy, the feelings of not belonging, the constant watching of people’s hands and faces, the irritation at others on the road and in public for the apparent lack of respect for each other and what this country stands for - the list could go on. Joining a program like OCO can give you the opportunity to be around others that DO know how you feel, and think, too. It also gives you an activity to keep you focused on the present, something my therapist and I have been working on for some time. Obviously, if you are not focused, you will make mistakes and that can have bad repercussions on the side of a mountain. Like others, and maybe even yourself, I spend a lot of time in my day being frustrated and anxious about the lack of control I feel I have in life. Climbing might just give you the confidence and control that you need to start taking back your life, as well as teaching you when to let go and trust in others (and your gear), something I also struggle with daily.
I want to part this first writing submission by telling you that recreational programs do work, and can work for you in many ways if you are willing to come out of your shell and face your challenges head on. With that, I ask you to join us at Operation Climb On and see where this journey to self-exploration, healing, camaraderie, and being a part of the great outdoors will take you.
I want to leave you with one final baseless (one of my personal favorite) quotes from Tolkien. I ask that you always remember: “Not all who wander are lost.”