Paul Andersen: Veterans inspire law to open public lands |

Paul Andersen: Veterans inspire law to open public lands

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

Outside magazine recently reported groundbreaking legislation acknowledging the inestimable value of public lands.

On May 1, Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey introduced the Outdoor Recreation Therapy for Veterans Act. As the executive director of Huts for Vets, which was founded in Aspen, I was interviewed for this bill and gave it my full support.

Bill HR 2435 not only endorses our wilderness approach at Huts for Vets, it validates the importance of public lands. And not only for veterans, but for those with autism, cancer, restorative mental health needs, device and drug addictions, etc.

“Studies have shown — and veterans’ organizations strongly concur — that outdoor recreational activities can provide powerful therapeutic and healing benefits as well as camaraderie for veterans struggling with combat-related injuries or post-traumatic stress,” states the bill’s sponsor.

“We should be thinking outside the box to discover as many ways as possible to help veterans. Opening up federal lands and removing barriers to access for remedial outdoor recreation is a no-brainer.”

Proving that public lands are effective places of national healing for veterans makes an irrefutable argument for more land conservation. And there will be no stronger advocates than veterans who have found peace and healing there.

For Aspen, surrounded by three wilderness areas — Maroon Bells-Snowmass, Hunter-Frying Pan and Collegiate Peaks — these lands take on significance beyond recreational tourism. They become sacred places for those who tread a path to wellness.

“It’s not a secret that our physical and mental health are affected by our environment and the people with whom we surround ourselves,” states Mandy Walker, a Huts for Vets alumna, Air Force veteran and social worker for homeless veterans in Denver.

“Huts for Vets has created a world for veterans that is separate and other than one which typifies bustling modernity. In this engaging oasis, we veterans are able to gain insight and perspective in a way that often proves illusive, despite our best efforts in finding clarity.”

Mandy was a recent participant on a Huts for Vets pilot program in the Canyonlands of Utah — the first time Huts Ffor Vets has taken veterans of desert wars into a desert environment.

“I have just begun to reflect on and unearth what it is about these experiences that I find so life-altering,” wrote Mandy in her trip report. “The full scope of the effects are still germinating; I can feel that seeds have been planted for even deeper healing and change, which has yet to come.”

Experiences like Mandy describes should be readily available to all veterans, and HR 2435 mandates that government agencies find ways to better use public land in treatment and therapy for veterans.

“This year, the VA will spend $8.6 billion on mental health services for its 7 million patients,” Outside reported. “Studies show that outdoor-recreation therapy is effective at decreasing the symptoms of PTSD and helping veterans reintegrate with civilian life.”

Outdoor recreation carries less stigma than other types of therapy and is less expensive, non-medicinal, holistically health-oriented and longer lasting than a handful of pills.

Reflecting on our recent desert trip, Mandy Walker agrees: “As an Air Force veteran with 10 years of service, I often feel ‘odd’ and ‘different’ among my civilian counterparts. Although I left the service in 2015, I still sometimes feel as though I am finding my feet when it comes to the full expression of how I hope to live out my life and my purpose.

“I felt so fortunate to find myself among such a motivating group of people. Everyone had so much to contribute and share. Although all of our military service experiences were wildly diverse, I felt understood among my peers.”

“Our bodies were fed. Our minds were fed. Our souls were fed. We hiked on the earth and were connected with the earth. And from this foundation we were connected with one another. We were given the nourishment and the tools to foster our greatest, highest versions of ourselves, and we were provided the opportunity to share that version of ourselves with our fellow veterans and civilian trip leaders.”

HR2435 deserves bipartisan support as the highest and best use of public lands.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at