For most, a trip into the mountains is a way to reconnect with nature; for others it can be a lifesaver.
Since its launch in 2010, Outward Bound Canada’s Veterans’ Program has been helping Canadian military veterans face the challenges often encountered post-deployment, through inspiring journeys of healing and self-discovery in the Canadian wilderness.
words: Brian Peech
For over three years, CMH Heli-Skiing & Summer Adventures, the largest heli-assisted wilderness operation in the world, has joined forces with Outward Bound Canada to help bring veterans together in the outdoors, and facilitate lasting, positive change.
“Our veterans today face physical challenges from injuries, age and medication,” says Nicole Kerr, lead instructor for OBC’s Veterans’ Program in the Rockies. “And also emotional and mental challenges like PTSD, depression, insomnia, substance abuse and relationship issues.”
Kerr first became involved with the Outward Bound program as a participant on the Veterans’ Rock course after her release from the army. She then served as an apprentice on the Vets’ Day Hiking course, and went on to an instructor role the following year.
“We see veterans that are still serving, vets about to release, vets that are in the early stages of transition and vets that have released many years ago that still struggle in transitioning back to a civilian life,” Kerr says. “It is unfortunate that there is no ‘de-training’ process for our military. People are released and slip through the cracks without help, as they try to find their way back to a life they once knew, while at the same time trying to process the changes they can see in themselves while trying to integrate.”
While at CMH, veterans embark on a week-long expedition, taking part in activities such as rock-climbing, ski mountaineering, ice-climbing and hiking. Participants are given an opportunity to reflect on and share their experiences and transition challenges in a supportive and restorative environment.
“To tell you the truth, I was nervous going into the program, as I didn’t really know what to expect,” says Jimmy Collins, a 35-year-old veteran who spent 17 years in the reserve infantry. “In the military you plan, plan, plan everything you do so you can try and control the situation you’re going into, but when you have little information before you get to the step-off point it forces you to rely on the people with you.”
During their stay at CMH, everything is provided for the veterans, from lodging to food, to gear to guides and instruction.
“Our participants just have to show up and the rest is taken care of,” says Kerr. “Great meals, top of the line gear and equipment and information on what to do next. Our veterans get an opportunity to unplug from the world and reconnect with themselves and fellow soldiers from all over Canada, while in the natural world. We create a safe, compassionate and challenging environment which lends an opportunity for bonding and enables our participants to share their story with people who understand.”
“It is important because its results are life-changing,” she adds. “[This program] was the first time I felt like someone was giving back to me for my service and sacrifice and it was the first step for me on my healing journey. With reflection, comes direction.”
Outward Bound Canada works with around 3,000 participants each year as part of its various programs, and the Veterans’ Program makes up between 40-80 percent of that, depending on funding.
So what’s it like for a mountain guide to take seasoned combat veterans into the mountains?
“It was fantastic taking the veterans out in the mountains and spending time together in the lodge,” says Matt Dellow, Assistant Area Manager, Bobbie Burns. “For me, the real difference between guiding this group and guiding a group of civilians is how fast the camaraderie forms. The veterans are used to relying on each other—from both their training and their experiences—in ways most civilians can’t imagine.
“We hiked to an abandoned mine, did our zip lines over the river canyon, did our tree top ropes course, hiked a peak and finished with our Conrad Via Ferratta climbing route as the grand finale,” he continues. “But the ‘taking care of each other’ mentality far outweighed most people’s competitive side, in my opinion.”
Outward Bound was originally developed in 1941 as a resiliency program for young British service personnel. The program used a combination of adventure training, personal and team development and community service to help young sailors build the inner resources necessary to survive arduous wartime challenges.
The program proved to have far-reaching benefits and since the World War II, Outward Bound schools have been established in 40 countries around the world. Outward Bound Canada began operations in 1969, and over the past 40 years has graduated more than 150,000 alumni through its courses.
“Outward Bound is an opportunity,” says Marc D’Astous, Outward Bound Canada’s Veterans’ Program Director (and one of its founding members who retired from the Canadian Armed Forces in 2005). “It’s a chance to go on a life-changing journey of self discovery in the wilds of Canada. For me, it’s especially important as I have seen the positive affect it has had on my peer group of military veterans. Many have been able to return to civilian life and reach their full potential.”
Spawned in part as a direct response to what D’Astous calls “the gap that existed in providing veterans and returning soldiers to Canadian soil an opportunity to transition to either civilian life or life at home in garrison” the Outward Bound Veterans’ Program and its partnership with CMH play an integral role in reintegrating our revered servicemen and women into civilian life.
“Being outdoors with a wonderful team in beautiful terrain is the best way to ground yourself,” adds Collins, who admits his biggest struggle right now is sleep. “Hiking all day put me right out, which was great! As a veteran, it was great to be with members that are and were serving from all branches. Every day I’d get to hear about other people’s experiences and common issues relating to those experiences and from that, I’d look at my issues from another angle, which would make dealing with them easier.”
The CMH trip Collins took part in was based out of CMH’s 5-star Bobbie Burns lodge South of Golden, B.C.
“Everything about the lodge and staff was humbling,” he says. “The staff of the lodge volunteered their time to make us feel at home and took care of anything we needed plus took us on epic day hikes.”
There were 12 veterans and two Outward Bound leaders on last year’s trip, ranging widely in physical ability, age, and military experiences.
“On the physical side, the vets ranged from one candidate who was a very strong climber to another having difficulty climbing stairs,” says Dellow. “The most amazing thing about the group is how things become about the group and not the individual; individual successes were celebrated by the group.”
While based around man-versus-nature dynamics, the program isn’t solely focused on physical accomplishments, rather a bonding and sharing process that these activities germinate. There are group sessions, peer-focused support programs and the opportunity to discuss issues that most civilians couldn’t relate to.
“On the Veterans’ Program I would say that peer support is a big part of the experience,” says D’Astous. “Activities such as self-reflection, goal setting, participating in facilitated group discussion, and active listing/feedback sessions are key elements.”
“There was much talk about PTSD,” says Dellow. “Every evening the vets and the OBC leaders would have a group session, and myself and the other two guides were invited to join if we wished. Sometimes in the field, people would open up about their stories, which were so heavy it was difficult to hear and even harder to not be brought to tears. Other times we would laugh and just enjoy being a group of people out in the mountains.”
Outdoor adventure can be a highly personal experience, but at its very nature, its power lies in bringing us closer to something—to our surroundings, to nature, to ourselves and to our fellow humans.
“It was truly amazing how quickly the veterans made us guides feel a part of the group and would share very personal experiences with us,” Dellow continues. “As an average Canadian, I don’t think I had given much thought about our armed services. I gained a whole new respect for what the men and women in all the armed services have sacrificed for our country. The experience made me even prouder to be Canadian.”
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