Hiking, swimming, and rafting. It sounds like fun, right? For veterans, it’s a therapeutic blend to recovery.
By Christine Graf
When Margery Hermann saw the “disgraceful” way Vietnam veterans were treated upon returning home from war, she promised herself she would do something to help them. She never forgot that promise.
In 2011, Hermann established an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization called Canyon Heroes to promote hope and healing for veterans who have been emotionally impacted by military service. Canyon Heroes partners with Hatch River Expeditions to offer annual week-long rafting trips on the Grand Canyon’s Colorado River. The expedition’s two motorized pontoon rafts accommodate 24 veterans, four therapists, and a team of trained guides. In addition to rafting, participants hike, swim, sightsee, and relax in front of a campfire. Nights are spent in tents or sleeping under the stars. The cost of the trip is free due to grants and private donations.
The majority of veterans who take part in Canyon Heroes suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety, depression, and traumatic brain injuries. Many of the women in attendance have been victims of military sexual trauma. Participants have served in many conflicts, including Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. According to one veteran, “We were men and women with different personalities and from different backgrounds, but a group of vets always have something in common.”
All Canyon Heroes clinicians volunteer their time and have extensive experience working with veterans. Dr. Roger Brooke, director of military psychological services at Duquesne University, has gone on several trips. Although therapeutic, the rafting is not therapy, says Brooke. Veterans do not feel like they’re being treated; they feel like they are out on the water, having a good time with people they can trust. He shares his knowledge of worldwide warrior traditions and spends time with participants individually and in groups. It is all informal, and group participation is optional. According to the lead therapist and Vietnam veteran Jim Hill, “We pretty much let the river do the work.” He says the environment “just lends serenity.” At the conclusion of the 2015 excursion, psychotherapist Denise Mahone said she saw a light in people’s eyes that wasn’t there at the beginning of the trip.
The response from veterans who have participated in Canyon Heroes has been overwhelmingly positive. One veteran said, “It made me feel like, my God, there are things out here in this world that are worth living for.” Another trip participant said, “It got me back in touch with who I was, who I felt comfortable being.”
For those veterans as well as many others, the cold waters of the Grand Canyon’s Colorado River have been a source of healing. That is what Hermann hoped would happen in this magical place, a place she calls “God’s biggest cathedral.”