These wounded warriors don’t look like you’d expect. There are no jarhead haircuts or fatigues. There are no missing limbs or prostheses. These warriors are women and they bear the invisible wounds of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injuries (TBI), or military sexual trauma (MST).
Sun Valley, with its two grocery stores, handful of stop lights, and throngs of Icebreaker-wearing mountain junkies, sits a world away from the noise of war. But for the eight women sitting in this beautiful wine cellar, the noise of war is never very far away. They were all called to service in some unique way, and each woman has an origin story of sorts—the origin of the warrior within. But they are here in Sun Valley to confront the end of that story, an end none of them would have chosen.
The Sun Valley Adaptive Sports (SVAS) program Higher Ground (HG) offers six to eight camps a year for wounded veterfind higher ground ans. The camps are small and intimate with six to eight veterans per camp. Specializing in working with veterans affected by TBI, PTSD, MST, or visual impairments, Higher Ground focuses on helping veterans reintegrate to life outside the military. Sun Valley Adaptive Sports Executive Director Erin Rheinschild says, “Higher Ground is a life-line for many veterans around the country. They often come to us without the tools to cope with their new realities. We wrap these coping strategies in a recreational package so they have fun while they start to heal.” Sun Valley Adaptive Sports and Higher Ground fully fund the expenses of the trip for both the veteran and a spouse or support partner. A five-day camp including lodging, meals, transportation, all of the scheduled activities, and staff costs runs around $100,000. Because Higher Ground receives no federal funding, the money to support these programs comes solely from donors. During the winter sports camps, the participants spend time on Dollar and Baldy skiing or snowboarding or Nordic skiing on the Sun Valley trails. These activities are a part of Higher Ground’s highly effective therapeutic approach.
In an effort to address the question of what comes after life in the military, Higher Ground offers a “Reintegration Fund” that helps veterans pursue activities that spark their passions or curiosities. Often those activities are skiing or snowboarding, the activities that they learn during their week in Sun Valley. If a veteran needs equipment or help paying for the activity, Higher Ground provides that. If a veteran needs a bike adapted to his or her needs or injuries, Higher Ground will make it happen. One of the recreational therapists working at the camp says Higher Ground’s approach is bolstered by research that proves the connection between recreation and physical and emotional healing. She says, “Higher Ground’s commitment to the veterans’ recreational needs is part of a larger commitment to the healing process for each veteran.”
Higher Ground also offers an Emergency Fund that can cover any number of difficulties facing veterans as they reintegrate into civilian life. The organization has paid rent/mortgage for veterans who couldn’t make payments and for sessions with a marriage counselor in a few cases as the stresses of living with TBI and PTSD can wear the bonds of a marriage thread bare. The program has paid for childcare so that a parent can find work or participate in some of the stress-relieving recreational activities she may have discovered during her time in Sun Valley. Many things distinguish Higher Ground from other sports programs for wounded veterans, but two significant points make the top of my list: their industry-leading three-year follow up and their therapeutic focus. The five days that the veterans spend in Sun Valley are about skiing and snowboarding and having fun. But they are also about connecting with other veterans who may be struggling with the same issues as they re-enter civilian life. The four full-time recreational therapists who run the program ensure that each activity offers a therapeutic element so that the veterans learn to recognize the tools they have to fight the everyday battles they face in their post-military lives.
When the Higher Ground therapists kick off the camp, they ask the veterans and their supporters what they expect and what they want from the week. The overwhelming chorus is, “I want to be with other people who get it.” Higher Ground therapists punctuate the week with a presentation. They explain that the eight women, who came from all over the country and served in different branches of the military, are now in a new unit, their Higher Ground unit. They hand out ski jackets with a Higher Ground patch on the right shoulder and a unit number. There’s another patch on the other arm, and this patch speaks a language that these veterans understand. They notice the forward-facing flag on the left shoulder and they understand this depicts the flag as it flies into battle. One of the vets leans forward and admits to the group, “Every day is a battle, isn’t it?” The employees and volunteers at Higher Ground offer an environment where none of these veterans is a victim; rather, at Higher Ground, they are still warriors. They may be fighting on a different front, but they are warriors nonetheless. And if there’s one thing that will help these warriors get out of bed in the morning, it’s to face the battle ahead. As each woman puts on her new jacket, there’s a distinct shift in the air. They begin to trust that they might have found some “people who get it.”
For more information about higher ground or to donate to the program, contact Erin Rheinschild: Higher Ground
P.o. Box 6791, Ketchum, id 83340 208.726.9298 + www.hgvets.org
Story courtesy of Sun Valley Property News