Hunting for HealingNov 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Maggie Barnes
Keith Tidball, Ph.D., is a unique combination of scientist, outdoorsman, and veteran. The Cornell University professor, who is a Gulf War era veteran, has studied the link between time spent in nature and recovery from trauma—including the trauma associated with military combat. He believes deeply in the mission of the Wounded Warriors in Action organization as a way for veterans to tap into nature’s restorative powers.
“We come from nature. And modern life has pushed us away from that,” he says. “Reconnecting with the natural world has a physical effect on the body and the mind.”
For military veterans, the return to civilian life can be a painful and difficult transition. For Purple Heart recipients, who often served in Special Forces and bear a lifetime of wounds for that service, the switch can be nearly impossible. The statistics on veteran suicides is heartbreaking evidence of that. To help veterans heal via that natural world reconnection, WWIA members provide hunting and fishing excursions in beautiful settings across America, Canada, and Mexico. These adventures are all guided by local experts and are provided without charge for the participants. Being away from technology and being in the company of others who understand their experiences proves a powerful combination that can help veterans find their footing again.
The chapter in the Finger Lakes region offers deer hunts and waterfowl hunts and fishing trips, thanks to volunteers who donate guide services and the use of property. One of the property owners featured in the introductory video for WWIA says, “This is the most important thing we have ever done with our land.” Each WWIA chapter is linked to a sportsman’s club, an American Legion, or a VFW post that organizes the fundraising. It costs roughly $2,000 to bring a participant on these trips, with expenses including airfare and licenses. The outings are three to five days long, with four veterans going at a time. Keith works with a club in Seneca County that has been hosting WWIA events for nine years. The club raises funds throughout the year.
“Our community is so generous—we cover our costs and even send a donation to WWIA National,” says Keith.
The positive impact of these trips is evident when someone like Matt Brannon, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who was wounded in 2008, shares his story. He admits he wasn’t himself when he came home to Boaz, Alabama. Then a friend took him hunting for the weekend.
“While I was hunting that weekend, it was the first time I had really taken a deep breath and relaxed in years,” Matt remembers. “I was able to be in the outdoors and connecting with nature and myself. I told myself this is what all veterans who are struggling need. They need to get into the outdoors and heal.”
He looked for an organization that championed this approach and found a connection with WWIA. Matt embraced the program and went on to become a volunteer, leading other veterans through the process. The founder of WWIA, John McDaniel, offers a guide school to train veterans for careers in outdoor recreation. Matt was selected for the program, and now continues his own recovery by helping others heal.
“WWIA is the real deal,” Matt says. “They love and care about combat wounded veterans and they back up what they say in every possible way.”
The group of four veterans on a hunting or fishing trip dine together with their hosts. Keith says this is an important activity and even the process of preparing and cooking the game they caught is part of connecting the veterans to nature.
“There is a sense of mastery and accomplishment when you use your skill to present a meal you procured. And the conversations around that table are part of the therapeutic approach to helping vets feel valued and accepted.
“These are people who have been through what you’ve been through,” he continues. “And we’re talking vets from any conflict, any era. They bond almost immediately, and the sharing of their experiences is something only other vets can truly understand.”
The military has a Warrior Transition Service that bridges the change from service back to civilian life. Part of that transition process includes a questionnaire where vets can indicate that they have a love for the outdoors or have been hunting or fishing before. When WWIA is lining up a trip, those vets are contacted and offered the chance to apply.
“When we do a trip in the Finger Lakes region, 95 percent of these folks have never been here,” Keith comments. “They are blown away by the natural beauty and all there is to do. I often hear about them returning with their families for vacation. The house we have access to in Canandaigua serves up a sunset that’ll take your breath away. They remember that.”
Regarding post-traumatic stress disorder and anger issues, Keith notes that WWIA provides a trained volunteer who watches for signs of any emotional struggles and helps the vet process what is happening.
“The men and women we take on these trips have demonstrated exceptional character, and we have never had a problem,” he says.
The excursions even accommodate disabled participants in wheelchairs and other assistive devices.
“You want to go, we will make it happen,” Keith says.
As for Matt Brannon, he believes in the mission of WWIA so strongly that he wants only one thing.
“I wish every combat wounded veteran could experience an event with us. It is truly the best experience they could ever hope for.”
Find out more about Wounded Warriors in Action at wwiaf.org.