8 Steps for Veterans and Their Families to Find Healing in Nature

Here are some simple ways for vets to find solace in the great outdoors

By Vedia Barnett

November 10, 2023

Active Duty Military Personnel kissing son goodbye

Photo by Courtney Hale/iStock

As a disabled veteran who comes from a family with a strong military tradition, I understand the value of serving my country and of serving others. I have also experienced firsthand the transformative power of spending time in the great outdoors. My dad—a Vietnam War veteran who struggled with PTSD—took us camping and to the beach, and I remember the joy he exuded during those trips. Decades later, I credit the time I spent in nature during my recovery from a stroke as paramount to my healing. My experience is a testament to the immense therapeutic potential of nature—a healing power that transcends age, gender, and background.

As Veterans Day approaches, I find myself reflecting on the profound significance of the work undertaken by the Sierra Club Military Outdoors team. Our program was founded in 2006 by veterans who witnessed the importance of time outdoors for those returning from service. Nearly 20 years later, our goals remain the same: to improve the lives of military service members, veterans, and their families through connections with the outdoors and to inspire members of that community to become outspoken champions for environmental conservation and justice.

My own journey into the world of veterans and nature began with an unexpected twist. A stroke left me in a state of vulnerability and uncertainty as my life took a course I had never anticipated. During my recovery, as I grappled with physical and emotional challenges, I discovered that the outdoors became my sanctuary. The rustling leaves, the calming babble of streams, and the open skies provided a much-needed respite from the pain of therapy sessions and the isolation and loneliness I felt.

At first, I found myself on peaceful and reflective short walks in my neighborhood. Eventually, I undertook more challenging hikes in the parks near my home. Those moments outdoors were therapeutic in ways that traditional medical treatments couldn't replicate. The simple act of breathing in fresh air, feeling the sun on my face, and hearing the natural world was a powerful prescription for healing. The more I immersed myself in nature, the more my strength and resilience grew.

This experience piqued my interest in understanding the connection between veterans, nature, and well-being. I began researching and I soon discovered an abundance of scientific evidence establishing that nature can have a profound impact on mental and physical health. Studies have revealed that spending as little as 30 minutes in the outdoors can lead to better mental health, increased personal satisfaction, and a reduction in depression and suicidal thoughts. It became clear to me that this knowledge had to be shared with fellow veterans—veterans like me. 

The healing power of nature should not be an exclusive privilege. I knew that I had work to do to create nature-access points for all veterans, particularly those from marginalized and underserved communities. It's no secret that not all veterans have the same opportunities to access and enjoy nature. Some may face economic, physical, or geographical barriers that limit their outdoor experiences. It's my mission, inspired by the Sierra Club Military Outdoors team, to ensure that all veterans have the chance to experience the rejuvenating effects of nature.

How can we do that? Here are simple steps you can take—whether you’re a veteran yourself or just connected to one—to ensure that those who served our country have the chance to enjoy the great outdoors. 

  1. When you spend time with your veteran family and friends, prioritize accessibility, both physical and cultural, when considering where you go or what activities you do. Ensure that venues and activities are accessible to disabled veterans and create an environment where diversity is not just tolerated but celebrated.

  2. If you know of resources that veterans, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds, could make use of, help share that information with them. This could be veteran-specific programs or resources, or even just an accessible trail near you that you tell your veteran neighbor about. The Veteran Affairs’ resources page is a great place to start, as well as Military OneSource.

  3. Get engaged with veteran-focused events and organizations. Veterans need the support of the people and community around them. Show up for events organized by your local veteran organizations such as the Wounded Warrior Project.

  4. Support veteran-owned small businesses. The US Chamber of Commerce collated a list of six directories that you can use to find some. 

  5. Combat the stigma surrounding mental health, particularly PTSD, by listening to the veterans in your life when they choose to open up to you, without casting judgment. Normalize the importance of people seeking help and support.

  6. In your workplace, advocate with your veteran coworkers and educate yourself on understanding the diverse needs of the veteran population.

  7. Participate in community-based support networks for veterans, particularly for ones from underrepresented backgrounds, to help them combat the sense of isolation that a lot of veterans struggle with. One great group that does this is the Farmer Veteran Coalition

  8. Call your representatives and ask them to support policies, like the proposed Transit to Trails Act, that specifically address the unique needs of LGBTQ, Indigenous, Black, Latino, women, disabled, and immigrant veterans. Another excellent policy idea is the recently introduced Get Rewarding Outdoor Work for our Veterans Act

As Veterans Day arrives, I am reminded that veterans like me who have sacrificed so much for our nation deserve every opportunity to heal and find solace in the beauty of our natural world. We owe it to our veterans to ensure that nature's healing embrace is within reach for all who have served and sacrificed for our country.