Combat Veterans find healing in the Colorado wilderness

Up to 20 percent of vets who served in Iraq and Afghanistan develop PTSD, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs

Wiki Commons

A guest blog by Paul Andersen

Paul Andersen is a journalist, book author, historian and facilitator. He is founder and executive director of Huts For Vets based in Aspen, Colorado.


“You guys saved my life.”

These words spilled out of an Iraq combat veteran, a 6-foot-two Marine named Dan. His voice shook with emotion and tears flooded his eyes as he described his experience from a wilderness “solo” during a Huts For Vets trip in September 2013.

The setting was Sawmill Park, a grassy meadow in the Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness surrounded by an evergreen forest and a stunning view of the Elk Range. We had stopped for solo reflections, each man wandering into the woods for solitude and shelter as light rain pattered against our jackets.

Dan emerged from the forest halfway through the solos and stood in the middle of the meadow, his gaze on the distant peaks. “When I was on the solo,” he said later, “I was more scared than I have ever been in my life. In the middle of that meadow I suddenly felt safe because you men were all around me. I felt protected and no longer alone.”

Facing inner demons leaves many vets quaking with unease, but time in wilderness, especially with other vets, can help lend strength to their struggle. With that in mind, Huts For Vets was founded in Aspen in January 2013.

Our mission is to take small groups of combat veterans into the wilderness and offer – at no cost – a perspective shift by removing them from the tumult of life and providing a safe and beautiful place where they may find the courage to feel again.

Using nature for healing and respite

Vets bond at a 10th Mountain Division Hut. Photo courtesy of Paul Andersen.

Dan’s experience was his own, but it is not uncommon. Another vet in the program, an Army sergeant named Chris, described his challenges:

“Since my return from deployment almost seven years ago I was searching and grasping for something that made me feel human again. My savior has been the opportunity to work in the outdoors and wilderness areas that we are blessed with. My mind slowly begins to slow down and my anxiousness and anger tends to subside when I am at one with nature.”

There are tens of thousands of men and women who seek the same experience, veterans who are lost in their reentry to civilian life, adrift without their military mission, alone without their comrades-at-arms.

A Huts For Vets applicant put it like this: “I want to be able to find coping mechanisms and enjoyment in things I used to do. I want to be around people going through some of the same issues I am.”

Warriors for Wilderness

A group of Huts for Vets participants on Mount Yeckel, Colorado. Photo courtesy of Paul Andersen.

With wilderness as the setting, Huts For Vets offers an antidote to angst and alienation for veterans, a soothing respite from the uncertainty of life, and a workable alternative to the current statistic of 23 suicides per day among veterans.

With two nights at Margy’s Hut at 11,300 feet – the 10th Mountain Hut built by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara – veterans share an intimate, communal experience and a deep expression of joy.

Just being in the lush Colorado wilderness – a place where there are few visual triggers to unleash haunting memories of convoys, IEDs, and combat – is helpful in providing respite from hypervigilance and intrusive thoughts that can proliferate in urban settings.

Huts For Vets knows the value of our veterans. We also know the value of wild places for helping them reaffirm their humanity.

Identifying wilderness as a place for national healing adds even greater legitimacy to the idea of conserving more wild lands. And there will be no stronger advocates for conservation than those veterans who have found peace and healing there.

Video: Why Huts for Vets matters

Know someone who could benefit from this program?

Huts for Vets is seeking candidates to their programs starting in summer 2015.  If you are a combat veteran, or know someone who is, please go to their web site to download an application.



More on this issue:

Veterans write to "control the memory" in outdoor workshop

Veterans want to protect the lands that help them heal.