by Sam Demas, August 2016
“Huts for Vets and my fellow warriors saved my life over the last four days. Finding healing could not have happened in a better place.”
–From the logbook at Margy’s Hut, Tenth Mountain Division Hut System
This quote by a Marine veteran captures the essence of the Huts for Vets (HFV) program. Operating in partnership with the Tenth Mountain Division Hut System, Huts for Vets is one of many outdoor-based programs treating veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
HFV is also an exemplar of the potential for hut systems to serve as backcountry infrastructure for a wide range of educational, therapeutic, and community building programs.
Healing in the wilderness: HFV program overview
Founded in 2013 by Paul Andersen, the HFV mission and goal are:
- To help veterans adjust to and enjoy civilian life by gaining tools for enhancing mental, physical, spiritual and emotional health.
- To fully engage participants at psychological and experiential levels through immersion in wilderness, physical challenge, group discussions and contemplative thought – making wilderness a place of national healing.
Using the Tenth Mountain Division Huts, HFV provides a powerful healing opportunity for combat veterans through a wilderness immersion experience and an opportunity for camaraderie with other vets, as.
The program is based on research findings and practical experience in the:
- efficacy of different treatments for veterans suffering from PTSD,
- calming and healing power of wilderness therapy,
- benefits of physical activity in strengthening the mind-body connection, and
- benefits of thoughtful intellectual discussion.
These mountain trips take service members into the Frying Pan Wilderness Area for 3.5 days of activities for healing and caring for the body, mind and spirit. These gender-specific trips include:
- 10 veterans,
- a psychologist experienced in treating Vets,
- an overall moderator/discussion leader,
- one or two Hut Masters who handle logistics, and
- alumni of the program serving as peer-to-peer moderators, and
- a few HFV board members may also attend.
Typically an HFV workshop starts on a Thursday afternoon with a dinner gathering that includes introductions and orientation. On Friday morning the group hikes 10 miles up to Margy’s Hut (at 11,300’ elevation). Weather permitting, on arrival the group spends time sitting on the deck, resting and admiring the views of the Williams Mountains. There is no cell phone reception or wifi at the hut, which helps one “get back to the basics in life”.
The weekend program includes the following elements:
- Daily hikes in the wilderness area.
- Service work, such as hut and trail maintenance.
- Discussions based on readings from writers such as Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Kierkegaard, Edward Abbey, Victor Frankl, and Wendell Berry. The readings are provided in advance. Discussions are led by a moderator using the Socratic method, and promote thoughtful engagement with key issues in the experience of trauma, in being warriors, and in the healing powers of wilderness.
- Breakout sessions with a therapist to learn tools to take home to reduce the effects of trauma.
- Physical activity including hard work, and a range of tension-releasing exercises that teach one to self-trigger the calming power of the parasympathetic nervous system.
- Community-building activities such as tending to the cleaning of the hut, hauling firewood, helping with cooking and cleanup that build a sense of a “hut tribe”.
Testimonials from participants indicate that this is a valuable therapeutic experience and a moving opportunity for. One example:
Being in this wilderness has helped me understand the value, quality and significance of these wild places. “The further man’s feet are from the earth, the less respect he has for living, growing things.” The men here have taught me that I must improve myself in order to enjoy the freedoms that we all fought for. The Huts For Vets staff is an amazing group of guys with an exceptional program that can give the combat veteran tools to be able to cope with transitions and the issues associated with PTSD, TBI, etc. This program exceeded all my expectations, and the talk, the laughter, music and general BS were truly a gift and proved that camaraderie and brotherhood cross the lines of military branch, unit, and years. Thanks for everything!
–Chris Barker, Army, Iraq
Operations, finance and future
HFV operates 5-6 workshops/trips per year. The workshops are free to vets, the philosophy being: “They have already paid.” HFV pays travel expenses for all participants, covers the cost of food and all other program expenses, and provides gear as necessary.
The program is financed through fundraising. HFV did recently receive a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Fundraising and community-building in the Aspen area include book discussion groups, potluck dinners, sponsoring a theater production, and concerts. Support from local businesses is an important element of the economic model, as are donation of hut rental by Tenth Mountain Division and the fact that nearly all the HFV staff (except for Hutmasters) is by volunteers.
The economic model appears to be successful in the rarefied environment of Aspen, with its world-class hut system, deep pockets, and many energetic and talented volunteers. Could it succeed elsewhere? Replication or extension of the model elsewhere is of interest to the Board.
What sets HFV apart from other wilderness programs for veterans is its:
- unique vision and use of huts,
- focus on mind, body, spirit and nature; and
- volunteer and non-profit model.
Recruiting of vets is largely by individual outreach, with visits to VA hospitals and military bases, speaking with mental health officials, and tapping into veterans’ organizations and networks. Other outreach efforts include working with active Vets in the Aspen area, Facebook, the HFV website, and local publicity. Every trip fills up readily.
Trips are now offered for HFV Alumni to focus in part on training alums to serve as peer mentors in leading discussions.
The HFV Team
Margy’s Hut is a key player in HFV. While HFV could select other Tenth Mountain Division Huts for its programs, they have found Margy’s Hut to be ideal. It is well located in beautiful surroundings, but is less visited and more private than some other huts because it doesn’t have a spectacular lake or other peak attraction. There is a certain poetic justice in the fact that this hut — the site of so much healing — was built in memory of Margy McNamara, wife of Robert McNamara, the architect of the Vietnam War.
All members of the HFV Board are veterans, except for founder Paul Andersen.
Paul Andersen is a professional writer with many years experience in the newspaper business. He is the author of 11books, writes for magazines, television, films, and, of course, newspapers. He writes a weekly opinion column for the Aspen Times and his interests include environmental protection, community service, nature and biophilia, and wilderness therapy.
Paul is an accredited guide through the US Forest Service and leads wilderness trips for the thought leaders invited to participate in the Aspen Ideas Festival, and others, through Aspen Ideas Culture Tours. Paul was generous in sharing with me his thoughts about HFV and related topics.
HFV’s psychologists are Dr. Gerald Alpern and Dr. Erin Wilkinson. Dr. Alpern, a Korean War Veteran has been treating vetsfor 50 years. He is author of the book Vets for Vets. He has reviewed all the available treatment modalities for veterans suffering from PTSD, and finds that that putting Vets together with other vets in a wilderness setting is the one of the most powerful therapeutic combinations available. Lt. Col. Dr. Erin Wilkinson spent 20 years as an Army psychologist and practices equine therapy.
Brian Porter, Director of Operations, is a Marine Corps vet who is deeply committed to the program. Brian is a professional photographer, but prefers not to take his camera on HFV trips so he can be more present on an interpersonal level. Brian provided me with a great deal of useful detail about program operations.
Hut Masters Tait Andersen and Jake Sakson are trained and equipped to provide logistical support.
Huts as educational and therapeutic infrastructure
In my post Should the USA Create more hut-to-hut hiking, Part 1: Potential Benefits, argue that hut systems can become invaluable infrastructure for nature immersion programs with educational, therapeutic, community-building, and spiritual development aims. Working in partnership with a wide range of organizations, hut systems can operate as laboratories in which to experiment with immersive, nature-based educational programs that promote health, environmental education, community, and personal growth and renewal.
Huts for Vets is an excellent example of this potential benefit of having even more hut systems in the USA. The Tenth Mountain Division Huts (10MD) is providing, free of charge, a space for healing veterans. 10MD Executive Director Ben Dodge sees this as, “….a very appropriate use of huts for community service, for serving other non-profits in the area. Basically, it’s the right thing to do.” I couldn’t agree more and take inspiration from the partnership of HFV and 10MD.
The HFV/10MD partnership is a model worthy of study for other programs trying to cultivate an ethos of biophilia in our urban-centered civilization that is dangerously separated from the natural world. If the hut experience can help to heal those who have experienced the horrors of war, then it can certainly be beneficial to others less traumatized than our warriors.
Hut systems have the potential to make the experience “of what belongs to us all” — nature, public lands, and the right to the experience of building community in the outdoors — accessible to far more Americans. This blog post from HFV website by Erik Villaseñor says it well:
I offer this blog post as a testament to the power of Mother Nature, paired with the discussions and readings of this program, to be truly beneficial for soothing the warrior mind and soul. From the eight-mile hike up for our two-night stay at Margy’s Hut, being totally immersed in nature made for a humbling and trustworthy atmosphere. I felt like a huge weight was lifted off my chest – you know, that same feeling you get when you take off your gear after a twelve-hour patrol in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Only this time, there was no pending attack that could happen at any time after the weight was lifted off. There was only the view of the vast mountain ranges being kissed goodnight by the setting sun. It was almost as if the forest had cleansed us of our demons and we could move forward, with hope, to better days. On our final day, I can still remember feeling this huge blanket of peace draped over me, as I could not stop looking at the beauty that surrounded us. This is it. This is why we shed our blood, sweat and tears…to look out into the vast wilderness and say, “This is what my brothers and sisters died for, this is what we fought for, this belongs to us all.”