Helping our military veterans by immersing them in nature

Roaring Fork Valley’s Huts for Vets starting its ninth year

The COVID-19 pandemic severely restricted the activities of Huts for Vets, but the Basalt-based nonprofit still achieved a breakthrough in its mission to expose military veterans to “nature therapy.”

Huts for Vets executive director Paul Andersen and members of his team traveled to Arizona from May 5 to 8 to share their techniques with collaborators from Arizona State University and the Pat Tillman Veterans Center.

“This May program was auspicious because it marked the first time the HFV methodology was franchised, notably by a major university with one of the highest per capita student veteran populations in the U.S.,” Andersen wrote in a report for his board of directors.

In an interview with The Aspen Times, Andersen said Huts for Vets is eager to share its methods on a broader scale to try to help more veterans cope with readjusting to life after the military.

Huts for Vets was founded nine years ago. Andersen and other members of the team accompany small groups of veterans, usually around 10, into the vast backcountry surrounding Aspen. They hike into one of the Tenth Mountain Ski Huts, usually the Gates or Margy’s hut for three days of forest bathing. There is growing evidence that immersion in nature can aid in recovery from psychological and physical wounds.

“This is a growing field called eco-psychology,” Andersen said. “The whole idea is to get more veterans out in the natural world.”

The groups also undertake daily readings and discussions of a variety of materials selected by the Huts for Vets staff. Readings include Doug Peacock’s “Walking it Off: A Veteran’s Chronicle of War and Wilderness” and Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.”

The trips build cohesiveness of a unit. That’s important, Andersen said, because veterans are trained to rely on the unit when they are in the military. When they return home, they often find themselves isolated and some them are adrift. The problems were exacerbated by the isolation that came with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s the isolation that drives so much suicide,” Andersen said.

Most veterans make connections once they start discussing their experiences and emotions on the wilderness trips.

“Suddenly a veteran isn’t alone anymore,” Anderson said.

Two years ago, Huts for Veterans started looking for ways to share the organization’s work. Leadership teams from ASU and the Tillman Center traveled to Aspen last October to observe HFV’s methodology on a trip. It was one of only two trips that HFV was able to undertake in 2020 because of the pandemic.

That demonstration led to May’s trip to the Mogollon Rim in Arizona where there were co-trip leaders and moderators from Aspen and Arizona. Eight veterans hiked into a former Boy Scout Camp for immersion in nature and contemplation of readings. They also ate locally sourced foods that were packed in.

Andersen said he has high hopes for ASU and the Tillman Center reaching a high number of veterans through their new program called Treks For Vets or T4V.

“They are going to run with it,” he said. “That’s what we need to grow our program.”

Andersen, a former longtime reporter and columnist for The Aspen Times, admitted that he welcomed the break in 2020 to help him recharge. Throughout HFV’s existence, he felt he needed to oversee all of it on his own. He’s learning to share responsibility. Erik Villaseñor, a veteran from Rifle, was hired as program director this year. He brings a special perspective after serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. His experience will help HFV recruit the veterans most in need of help.

“He has military connections that I don’t,” Andersen said.

Andersen, 70, also has the pleasure of working with his 28-year-old son Tait, who helps lead the trips.

With the easing of the pandemic, Huts for Vets has a busy season ahead. There will be two trips for women veterans and three for men to the huts this summer. The first will be in June.

Huts for Vets will have a particular focus on serving veterans from the region. It also will continue to court collaborators. Other organizations are amazed that it is willing to share its intellectual property free of charge.

It’s all about helping the people that served their country.

“Those that come to us, I know they leave with changed lives,” Andersen said.

Helping veterans through wilderness therapy


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