After a year of stay-at-home orders and days spent indoors, many of us are looking to the place we could always turn to for respite and healing — the outdoors. Fresh air, sunlight, and sounds of wind and water help us heal from stress and trauma, especially after such a year of upheaval. The COVID-19 pandemic made it clear that the outdoors is not just something to pass through from home to car to work. It is essential for maintaining mental and physical health and wellness. No one knows this better than our veterans.
Our veterans are facing a mental health care crisis. Nearly 20 years of war have left more servicemembers bearing the weight of trauma experienced during their service — some of it visible, much of it invisible. Some of the effects of war, such as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress, can be equally or more disabling than an obvious physical injury, making it even harder to adjust to life at home. For far too many veterans, it is a story that ends tragically.
With its recuperative effects, the outdoors offer a compelling option for many veterans to heal from trauma. Unfortunately, nature is not always accessible for all veterans. A lack of transportation, a lack of outdoor experience or education, a lack of support, and other barriers prevent many from experiencing the full benefits of time spent in nature. We need to change that.
New York took an important step last year by passing the Outdoor Rx Act. Outdoor Rx seeks to dismantle these barriers so all veterans and their families can heal on New York’s public lands and waters. A report commissioned by the legislation, and just released, calls for increasing veterans’ access to the outdoors, including more veterans-specific programming on the state’s public lands and waters, simplifying public transit for veterans to reach these spaces, and revising fee structures to ensure that a shortage of funds won’t prevent a veteran from healing in nature.
In its original form, the Outdoor Rx Act was first introduced in 2018 as an outdoor wellness grant program for veterans and others struggling with substance abuse and trauma-based disorders. The legislation quickly bumped into the silos that too often stymie state government — the folks who dealt with parks and conservation areas had never even met the people who provided mental health or substance abuse services. But we persisted for our veterans and in 2019 we co-hosted a roundtable that brought together representatives from six different state agencies and another group of experts on veterans issues, mental and behavioral health and nature-based recreation. It laid the groundwork for the legislation finally passed that was signed by the Governor on Veterans Day 2020.
Passing Outdoor Rx was an important step in helping our veterans heal from service-related trauma, but we can’t stop there. We need better coordination between state and county agencies that support veterans. We also need improvements in outdoor education and infrastructure in New York, from increasing disabled access on public lands to upgrading transit systems. Doing so would benefit not only veterans and their families, but all New Yorkers, increasing their ability to get outdoors. We can be an example for other states to follow.
For many veterans, the process of integrating into civilian life after service is difficult. Outdoor Rx will help veterans with that transition by creating more opportunities to find peace and respite in the outdoors, connecting with nature and with fellow servicemembers. Together, they served to protect these beautiful lands. We should ensure they have the opportunity to heal on them.
Didi Barrett was elected to the Assembly in a special election in 2012. As a member of the Assembly, she is Chair of the Assembly Committee on Veteran’s Affairs, and was the primary sponsor in the State Assembly of the Outdoor Rx Act.
Lt. Col. (ret.) Aaron Leonard served more than 27 years in the U.S. Army. He is a member of the Sierra Club’s Atlantic Chapter, a senior campaign representative with Sierra Club Military Outdoors, and co-chaired New York’s Outdoor Rx Task Force.