Using nature to bridge gap between combat and home life

The Adirondack region has a long and extensive history as a health resort. Although the region has long been considered an ideal setting for people suffering from tuberculosis and a variety of similar respiratory ailments, it also has a proud history as a peaceful place to rest, recuperate and become reinvigorated.

Similar to many other rural regions in the country, most North Country folks understand and relate to the traditions and honor of serving their country.

As the nation continues to rapidly lose the last remaining members of the Greatest Generation, it is easy to forget the needs of our current generation of veterans.

After what they have been through, it’s only natural they would like to return to a calm and comfortable environment. It wouldn’t be the first time war veterans sought comfort and respite in the barrens of the Adirondack woods and waters. But hopefully, it could be the last.

The first wave of war veterans arrived in the region shortly after the Civil War as Adirondack sporting clubs sprouted and the region’s fish-filled waters were considered essential for national healing.

The influx changed the public’s perception of “wilderness.” No longer was the wilderness considered a place to be feared and avoided; rather, it was considered to be a safe, healthy and restorative atmosphere.

George Perkins Marsh, who once worked as a lawyer in Burlington, Vt. and later as a diplomat, believed the wilderness was an essential element of the American democratic spirit.

Often considered one of the country’s first environmentalists, Marsh was also a scholar of military science and a leading authority on the health benefits of regular outdoor recreation.

In 1864, he published “Man and Nature,” which has been credited with launching the modern conservation movement.

Marsh believed it was essential for the nation to maintain public access to American woods and waters for everyone to enjoy.

By the 1870s, Civil War veterans were traveling to the region for outdoor experiences in the wilderness in order to cure “soldier’s heart,” an affliction first observed in soldiers during the American Civil War.

The illness, which has been ascribed numerous labels over the years is as viable and painful in 2014 as it was in 1864.

It has been known by many names over the years, but the most recent reincarnation is post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

It is an illness that’s difficult to describe but easy to recognize when it happens to you or a loved one.

Stacy Bare is a climber, mountaineer and occasional surfer who served one tour of duty in Iraq as a civil affairs team leader.

He received a commission into the United States Army from the University of Mississippi and he currently functions as the National Military Family and Veterans Representative for the Sierra Club.

In an article recently published on the the Child and Nature Network website, Bare explained the intricacies of PTSD and the importance of “Turning to Nature After Returning from Iraq.”

He wrote: “This spring marks my five-year anniversary of coming home from Iraq. It has been an incredible journey, and one I’m thankful that I’ve lived all the way through. Iraq was a tough place to live … (but) America, after a year in Iraq may qualify as a tougher place to live.

“Sure, there aren’t as many car bombs or snipers, but most days, I’d have chosen a convoy down Route Sword versus another office park … or a strip mall.

“I’ve been bored, scared, pissed off, guilty, bitter and thankful since I got home. I’ve struggled with and worked through unemployment, depression, substance abuse and daily suicide ideations that have been stretched out to one every couple of weeks.

“Some days are better than others, but mostly I’m glad to be sucking down oxygen every day … and to have kept myself out of prison, the emergency room or the morgue.

“What kept me going? It was a rock wall, a fast-moving river, a quiet frozen lake in northern Minnesota that kept me moving up the wall of life and beyond the bitterness.

“It’s in the outdoors where I’ve found and rediscovered friends and shared experiences that … are making my life whole again.

“The last five years have left me with two pretty clear observations about wilderness and the outdoors in the context of an American soldier.

“As a nation, we owe it to our service members, their families and their children to preserve and keep wild places open as a place, if nothing else, for our veterans not just to heal – not everyone is broken – but simply to be.

“There are no waiting lines in the woods like there are at the VA, and it’s easier to meet someone at the base of a climb or at a put in on the river than it is at a bar.

“From soldier to citizen, the woods, the wilderness, the crashing surf, the still desert or the towering mountains are the most effective bridge over that gulf from combat and war to our communities in the suburbs, small towns, cities and rural areas of America.

“If managed correctly, and with 44,000 service men and women coming home from the war in Iraq and one million service men and women separating from the Department of Defense in the next five years, the wilderness can help ensure this influx of highly trained soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen can be a significant boom, rather than burden on our nation’s resources.

“Tapping into what can become the next greatest generation we have already invested in are our nation’s veterans. America can be a great nation worthy of the sacrifice we’ve made in the last 10 years.

“It may sound too simple, but I really think the crucial first step is as easy as getting outside into the wild country we defended here at home.”

And providing such opportunities to get our service men and women back to the woods, and back to normal, may be the next big chance to introduce sustainable and positive employment opportunities in many Adirondack communities.

It happened before in Tupper Lake, when the New York American Legion Veterans Mountain Camp was established as a health resort for veterans in 1922.

The facility included both a men’s and women’s dormitory, a mess hall, recreation hall, a hospital and numerous workshops.

It functioned as a convalescent home for veterans of the Spanish American War, WWI, WWII, as well as the Korean Conflict and the war in Vietnam.

The property which was located on the south end of Tupper Lake also included an “Outpost Camp” on nearby Horseshoe Lake, which was accessible from the main complex via a special rail station that took the vets and family members to nearby Horseshoe Station.

Log cabins and lean-tos were built for the convalescents, with permission having been granted from the state Department of Conservation to place the structures on the lakes and streams of the adjacent forest preserve, with kitchens and mess rooms conveniently located.

At the outpost camps, families stayed in cabins, lean-tos and tent platforms during the summer months and spent their days boating, fishing and hiking on more than 1,500 acres of private lands.

It was a place where hundreds of Tupper Lake youngsters of several generations worked as staff members. It was a good place to work!

It was a place where they learned to how to row a boat, catch a fish, hike, bowl, swim and occasionally fall in love. It was a place where locals had an opportunity to meet many new and interesting people from all levels of the social strata. It was a place with music and movies, fun and dance.

Most of all, it was a place where the employees were satisfied; proud of their work and happy to be there. And I believe we need a few more places like that around here.