Nature Helps Heroes Heal
“I would walk into any place, and everybody knew me,” says war veteran Matt Tennessen. “When I was in college, I couldn’t walk across campus, not even one time, without running into somebody, talking to them.”
That all changed when Tennessen came back injured from a year of service in Afghanistan.
He became detached, shopping late at night to avoid people and leaving family celebrations.
But then Tennessen heard about the Wounded Warriors in Action Foundation, an organization that sponsors hunting and fishing trips for purple heart veterans.
“We like to say we heal the wounds doctors can’t fix,” says John McDaniel, WWIA’s founder. “This is our canvas, if you will, for doing that.”
The canvas is Camp Hackett, 410 acres of remote forest near Phillips where veterans gather to hunt, fish and heal.
Keith Tidball of Cornell University was at this weekend’s WWIA conservation event. He conducts research on the role nature plays in the healing process for trauma victims.
“The work we’ve done at Cornell has shown there’s an intuitive, innate desire to be closer to nature, especially when some trauma has happened in your life,” he says.
“I feel very safe in the woods,” Tennessen says. “I don’t have to worry about people, I don’t have to worry about anybody judging me, it’s just me and nature.”
Tennessen first hunted with WWIA about two years ago, and has been volunteering for the foundation ever since.
“I had a really tough time reintegrating, that’s what the Army calls it, back into normal life,” he says. “I was really struggling. I was going to VAs, taking medication, doing different stuff like that. But then when I did that hunt, by that Sunday, it literally felt like a hundred pound weight was lifted off my back. I felt revived, rejuvenated. I felt – I can do this.”
This weekend, WWIA took the healing process one step further during their conservation event. Instead of hunting, they trained seven volunteer veterans from across the country in trail development and habitat improvement.
“I think it’s about giving back, more than anything else,” says McDaniel. “You can’t just take from land. The army used to have a tagline that said “Be All You Can Be.” When we look at the terrain up here, we say, how can we make this be all it can be?”
“Hunting is only one part of our relationship with nature,” says Tidball. “I think the giving back aspect, or participating in the growing side, as opposed to the harvesting side, both of which are important, they’re two sides of the coin, is important in terms of completing the circle.”
For Tennessen, things may never come full circle – but accepting that is part of healing.
“I can get some stuff back, but we’re all not going to be the same” he says. “And [I’m] okay with that.”