Public lands bring opportunities for healing and reflection, physical and mental challenges, and rest and recuperation to millions of veterans, active duty service members, and their families. In 2012, a small group of female veterans participated in a canoe trip on the Namekagon River that was organized by staff at the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and the Wisconsin County Veteran Services Offices. Park Ranger Branda Thwaits commented that, "Days like this remind me of the power of the river to bring people together."
The following year, Park Ranger Jeff Butler, an Army veteran, began working with the county veterans service officers, the VFW, the Minnesota VA, and the Minnesota Assistance Council for Vets, to coordinate experiential river trips for veterans and their families. Canoe and kayak trips multiplied into other types of river experiences including pontoon honor cruises, camping trips, and fishing trips, all designed to help veterans connect with the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers as well as with other veterans. Rivers of Recovery, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the rehabilitation of Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans suffering from physical and/or psychological injuries partnered with the Riverway to offer multi-day trips on the rivers.
The scenic and recreational value of our national parks to the mental and physical health of the military community is unparalleled and almost completely lacking research. Judging by comments from program participants, the river experience can be beneficial. One Sawyer County Veterans Service Officer and Veteran said, "I think the beauty of the river system speaks volumes for itself, but for many veterans and their family members, canoeing and kayaking provided an opportunity to try something new and win the battle over fear of the unknown."
This program would not have happened without the support of many. The America's Best Ideas grants from the National Park Foundation in 2013 and 2014 were instrumental. The St. Croix River Association has been supportive in many ways.
Veterans from all branches of the military have participated in river trips. The Vets on the River program continues to evolve and include more types of experiences. A high adventure program is planned in 2016, funded by a Call to Action grant, for student veterans from nearby universities and a stewardship activity will offer opportunities for veterans to give back.
See a video about one veterans experience.