Today there are nearly 23 million veterans in the United States. Many have mental and physical disabilities from injuries sustained during their service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Getting back to “normal life” for many can be a struggle in and of itself. Park and recreation agencies are providing vital programs for veterans with and without disabilities to improve their quality of life. Agencies are partnering with their local offices of Veterans Affairs (VA) and other community-based organizations offering recreational opportunities to veterans with disabilities.
The benefits to veterans participating in these types of programs are physical, social, and emotional. Veterans become physically stronger and better able to participate in more challenging activities. Through participation, veterans are surrounded by others who have shared similar experiences, allowing them to talk with one another, build confidence and trust, relax, and begin to enjoy daily life again. Once they become confident again in their ability to participate in recreational activities, they often continue their involvement and even become role models for other veterans, encouraging them to participate as well.
Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation in Utah is partnering with its local VA to offer year-round programs for veterans with disabilities. As part of its comprehensive services, the agency has an adaptive-recreation component that provides programs for veterans with various disabilities, including low-vision/blind, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse. The Plus One Pass provides access to all county recreation centers, including the fitness rooms, pools, and aerobic classes for them and a companion. This notable program is offered free of charge to the first 45 veterans with disabilities. Indoor rock climbing has proven to be one of the more popular offerings of the program. The veterans visit various indoor rock-climbing walls at county recreation centers where they learn climbing techniques, safety communication, set-up, knot tying, belaying, and how to reach the top of climbs.
Recreational therapist Brent Sturm at the VA Medical Center in Huntington, West Virginia, actively collaborates with local park and recreation agencies and other community-based organizations to offer recreational opportunities for his patients. He organizes trips to local golf courses, which offer adapted golf programs, three-wheel bike races, and fishing trips. His patients participate in Project Healing Waters, an adapted fly fishing program. Sturm, who enjoys working with local park and recreation agencies to provide these opportunities, stresses the social, emotional, and physical benefits to veterans participating in recreational programs. Sturm collaborates with the West Virginia chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America to provide further recreational opportunities, including golf, fishing, white-water rafting, and hand cycling. They also work with local park and recreation agencies in West Virginia to encourage them to increase accessibility at their facilities and provide recreational opportunities for veterans with disabilities.
Recreational programming opportunities are also offered at military bases around the world for veterans and active duty military personnel. At the U.S. Army Garrison Vicenza (Italy), Aaron Goodman, chief of the Community Recreation Division offers a program called Warrior Adventure Quest (WAQ) for soldiers who have returned from combat. This exceptional, high adventure program is being offered at many Army garrisons with returning soldiers. WAQ is designed to re-create the adrenaline rush of combat action in a supervised, controlled, high adventure activity facilitated by the outdoor recreation staff. Soldiers participate in skiing, snowboarding, white-water rafting, and other similar activities in the summer. The program enables soldiers to reach a “new normal” by diminishing boredom and high-risk behavior through outdoor recreation and Leader Led After Action Debriefing (L-LAAD). L-LAAD is a leader-led Commander’s tool which reconstructs events in a way similar to a traditional after-action review with additional emphasis on teamwork, unit cohesion and restoring or enhancing readiness. Soldiers are able to draw similarities between the adventure activity and their warrior experiences. Programs like these that are offered as part of a comprehensive strategy allow soldiers the opportunity to open up about their experiences and slowly acclimate to a more normal environment.
In addition to high-intensity activities, U.S. Army Garrison Vicenza Community Recreation also offers a therapeutic arts and crafts program, Resiliency Through Art with the Warrior Transition Unit (WTU). This is an opportunity for members to explore the endless possibilities in the field of art. Art is used as another form of expression and all mediums are explored. The weekly, two-hour program is facilitated by Arts Specialist Michelle Sterkowicz who is currently enrolled to become a certified art therapist. The intent of the program is to help soldiers returning from combat by giving them a more passive activity in which they can express themselves. One soldier said that the program “lets me re-open the creative side of my mind.”
These are just a few examples of how local park and recreation agencies are providing recreational opportunities for veterans with disabilities and how important these programs are for veterans returning to a more normal life.
When thinking about creating or improving programs for veterans with disabilities, it is important to establish a relationship with your local Veterans Affairs office which may be able to assist you with your programs or refer patients to your programs (https://www.va.gov/). Additionally, community-based organizations serving veterans with disabilities for other organizations will partner with agencies to provide these opportunities.
Learn more on the benefits of physical activity for persons with disabilities.
Kellie May is an NRPA Program Manager.