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Eco-Therapy for War Vets

  • Tom Banse

With the approach of Veteran's Day, Washington State Senator Patty Murray used the Democrats' weekly radio response to urge President Bush to enact her party's effort to provide the largest-ever increase in veterans funding. She said the legislation would help ensure that veterans get the medical care they deserve. In the meantime, individual states are stepping up to provide more help to returning soldiers and sailors. A novel program set up by Washington State's Department of Veterans Affairs uses nature to heal the wounds of war. Vets also get experience in environmental restoration that could lead to a good civilian job. Correspondent Tom Banse has more from suburban Seattle.

Sven Soholt spent a year in the treacherous terrain north of Baghdad. But the 24-year-old National Guardsman found the civilian landscape just as treacherous. "I got back and tried to go back to my job that I left before," he recalls. "I just was having problems sleeping. I was having anger issues; didn't want to be around people." So, a counselor referred him to the Veterans Conservation Corps.

Begun in 2005, the Corps attempts to unite two different public goals: to help returning vets and help the environment. On this day, Soholt is swinging a pickaxe with 24 other former soldiers, sailors and airmen. Their mission: to free a salmon stream choked with invasive weeds south of Seattle. They replant with native cedars, willow and shrubs.

Conservation Corps manager Mark Fischer calls it eco-therapy. "First of all, you get tired, so you don't have time to think about other things," he explains. "Second of all, it frees their minds from daily worries. You're out here with nature, doing good things for nature. There's good healing from that, I think."

The Veterans Conservation Corps started two years ago offering volunteer opportunities. This year, the state legislature increased the program's budget so it could expand into subsidized environmental job training.

That's enabled Sven Soholt to leave a diesel mechanic job and go back to school, studying forestry. He earns a stipend for two days a week of outdoor labor on the state crew. "It's peaceful. It's quiet and it's something I like to do," he says. "I know I'm never going to be the same again and I've kind of accepted that. But it's helped me realize what I have." And what he has is a plausible goal of a new career managing timber stands for the state.

There's a stark contrast between military life and working with your hands in the Northwest woods, explains Navy veteran Marcus Taylor. "Number one, fish and trees don't fight back, you know," he says with a laugh. "And being outside, especially on a day like this, it's got to be fulfilling and relaxing. I take this any day over hiding behind hills and protecting my buddies and protecting myself from gunshots and bombs and all that."

These vets describe their readjustment to civilian life as difficult. Unemployment runs significantly higher among veterans than the general population. Holding a regular job has been hard for Keisha Mullings, 30, since she left the Navy. So, when a social worker at the veteran's medical center mentioned the Conservation Corps, she signed up.

She says being outside is a good antidote for depression. Longer term, Mullings wants to start her own company doing habitat restoration. She points out that there are some business opportunities especially for veterans. "There are some contracts that you can bid on … if you want to work for yourself doing this. There is a lot of work to be done all around Washington State and all over the country and even the world doing earth conservation."

A researcher from the federal government's Veterans Administration has begun a tracking study with these Northwest vets to determine if eco-therapy delivers quantifiable benefits. In the meantime, Illinois just became the first state to copy Washington's Veterans Conservation Corps for its returning troops.

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