New York looks to help vets heal through nature

The transition from military service to civilian life can be challenging. For many veterans, that means seeking out professional medical and mental health assistance through the V.A., but an increasing number of veterans are turning to a much older remedy to augment those services – nature.

In 2012, after returning from my fourth combat deployment, I knew I needed to take inventory of my capacity to continue serving in the Army. A newly promoted lieutenant colonel with 25 years of service around the globe, I was being considered for a position that would require me to be at my best physically, emotionally, and spiritually. At that time I was also living with severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress, my body trying to process experiences from my most recent deployments to Iraq. Seeking help while an officer in the Army was not prohibited, but would radically change the trajectory of my military career. Instead, I chose to retire from the Army and focus on my own needs, and at 46 began searching for a new purpose for my life, one that I found in the outdoors. My story is my own, but I’m anything but unique.

The outdoors were critical in recovering the sense of peace and purpose I enjoy today, and many others have found the same respite and healing. Study after study shows that nature has powerful physical and mental health benefits. I’ve now worked directly with hundreds of veterans in the outdoors, veterans of all ages and abilities, and have seen their transformations into healthy and purposeful civilians time and time again. 

That’s why developments in New York are so exciting. Last month, Sierra Club, the New York Division of Veterans Services, and dozens of veterans service organizations,  businesses, and nonprofits came together to launch the Outdoor Rx Coalition. Its goal: Make it easier for veterans, military families, and active-duty service members to access and benefit from nature. In 2020, New York took an important first step by passing the Outdoor Rx Act, which seeks to dismantle the barriers that prevent veterans from healing on our state’s public lands and waters.

The Outdoor Rx Coalition is the next step in this important work. From the private sector to government to veterans service organizations, by combining our efforts, we can complete the research, advance the policies and make the direct connections with veterans that will help those most in need of the healing power of nature.

We’re building off of previous knowledge and expertise to expand veteran-focused programming in parks and on our public lands. We’re also looking for ways to expand public transit access from communities to public lands so nature access isn’t limited to those veterans with access to cars. We’re working to improve communication between state and county agencies that provide support to veterans, and we need to improve outdoor infrastructure and education so that more people can enjoy these treasured places. Doing so would benefit not just veterans, but all our communities in New York.

In its most recent federal appropriation, the Department of Veterans Affairs received $13.2 billion to support mental health services for veterans, an increase of nearly $3 billion over the previous year. It shows that mental health care is an increasingly serious issue facing the VA — as it is throughout the state and country. These therapies are essential for many veterans, but adding in a dose of nature can improve veterans’ health in additional ways. The path from military life to civilian life can be challenging, but when that path goes through nature, that path can get a little easier to travel.

Lt. Col. Aaron Leonard (Ret.) is the campaign manager for Sierra Club Military Outdoors and chair and co-founder of the Outdoor Rx Coalition.