A Veteran Finds Freedom and Healing in Nature

Time outdoors helps a vet recover from a stroke

By Vedia Barnett

November 11, 2022

Vedia Barnett

I was a latch-key kid growing up in the 1980s. I spent most of my after-school time riding my bike all over the neighborhood for hours and drinking water out of neighbors’ garden hoses. I made mud pies and even pretended I was Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues while I mocked smoking with discarded cigarette butts my friends and I would find on the playground. But the most vivid memory of my childhood and adolescence is the time I spent exploring the woods near my house, picking berries and eating them—or else using them as hair dye. When my friends and I were in those woods, time stood still. It was refreshing to simply be free and to live in the moment.

Those memories came back to me a few years ago after I experienced a life-changing stroke that reminded me that I needed to slow down. I was doing way too much. I wasn’t eating well nor was I sleeping much. Then the stroke happened. I went from being a physically active person who enjoyed biking, running, and swimming to being unable to talk and unable to walk without assistance.

After the stroke, I experienced debilitating vertigo and migraines that made me question if my life was worth living. I fell into a deep depression and often felt trapped in a body that betrayed me. My world as I knew it had stopped. During that time, when I felt I was close to my breaking point, I reached out to the Veterans Crisis Line. Calling the crisis line was the best decision I could have made, and I will always be grateful for the counselors who staffed that hotline and helped me through a nightmarish time in my life.

A turning point was when, on one of those calls, a counselor asked me to think of something that brought me joy but required no effort on my part. After thinking about it, I slowly stuttered how being outdoors gave me a sense of peace, and that the chirping of birds was a particular source of relaxation. She asked if there was a way I could get outside even for just five minutes and then challenged me to do it. Later that day, I asked my son to help me get dressed and to take me outside. Moments after sitting on the deck, I felt comfort and freedom to allow my brain and body to just be. I had not experienced that type of peace in years.

A few days later, I asked to go for a short walk, so my son held my arm as I took baby steps down our driveway and past a few homes on my street. It was a humbling experience for me to be in such a vulnerable space. But it was also more than worth it. At that point, I made a personal commitment to get outside several days a week. Eventually, I was able to go for walks by myself and for longer periods of time. Through a fellow veteran, I learned about Operation Tohidu for Women, an outdoor program for female veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. I eagerly signed up for a local one. My time with the group reminded me of how my childhood friends and I would hang out in the woods back in the '80s and talk for hours. I knew that I wanted to share this experience with other women veterans, so I found a local meetup for Outdoor Afro, a network that aims to connect Black people with nature and outdoor recreation opportunities. I started to attend meetups with one of my fellow veteran sisters. The times we spent on nature hikes allowed us to share our frustrations and to vent. We left those hikes often renewed and encouraged.

After experiencing physical and mental recovery through time outdoors, I decided that I wanted to be an advocate for other veterans seeking the therapeutic benefits of being outdoors. Working for the Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors campaign allowed me the opportunity to learn more about the positive benefits being outdoors has on veterans. I believe representation matters, and as a Black woman I hope being a member of the Sierra Club as well as my active role as an Outings leader can open doors for more marginalized veterans to believe that they can find solace in the outdoors too.

Veterans Day is a once-a-year chance to recognize those who have served our country. Sometimes, I like to imagine how Veterans Day could be more than the traditional parades and free meals for vets. Perhaps it could also become a day to celebrate this country’s landscapes and could be marked with hikes, fishing trips, camping, and other creative outdoor recreation opportunities that would honor veterans’ service to this country and the lands we volunteered to protect.