Previously published in the February 2013 (volume 41, issue 6) issue of POWDER.
WORDS: Sean Zimmerman-Wall
In 2010, Jennifer Romesser, a clinical psychologist at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah, wanted a better way to treat veterans. When American service members return home from deployment, they try and reconcile their traumatic war experiences with the realities of civilian life. For many, the transition can be difficult.
So Romesser, an avid snowboarder, called on the help of Peter Mandler, Director of Wasatch Adaptive Sports (WAS) at Snowbird. Similar to the nationally recognized Wounded Warrior Project, this mentorship program came from the ever-growing need to assist veterans. Beginning with their first patient in 2010, WAS and the VA set forth an initiative to more effectively treat those having difficulty after military deployment. The thought was that by engaging service members, patients could learn to interact with society on a higher level and build a passion and sense of efficacy by mastering a new skill. Skiing and the mountains felt like an ideal place to test that theory.
"The initial objective of the program was to reach out to veterans that were hesitant to access traditional mental health treatment," says Romesser. "Skiing served as a way to benefit [veterans] by getting out, interacting with people, and taking on new challenges."
In addition to skiing, the veterans are interacting with other people who have similar backgrounds. Snowbird employs a variety of retired and reserve service members that have found the mountains to be a peaceful place to come and work. Mark Fisher, a Marine and Snowbird ski patroller, has been working with the program since its inception.
"Getting these veterans out on the hill is a great way to help them reduce stress and promote relaxation," says Fisher.
Over the last year, these "retreats" have helped more than 100 veterans develop a diverse set of experiences that foster positive recovery outcomes. The program also focuses on including the families of veterans, and according to WAS instructor Dean Zanoni, it stimulates a lifestyle change.
Ethan Hill—a Marine deployed to Iraq in 2005 where he served in an area just outside of Fallujah—joined the program last season in an effort to combat his PTSD. When Hill returned to the U.S., he had difficulty readjusting to life outside the military. In fact, it took him nearly three years before he finally sought treatment from the VA.
"In my 10 years as a Marine, we were always the ones looking out for others, so it was hard to accept help," says Hill. In skiing, Hill found his niche and returned to the program week after week to ski. "It didn't feel like I was going to be treated. It was like I was going to hang out with my friends," he says. Hill enjoyed being at the mountain so much that he applied for a job on the mountain operations staff. Today, he spends his time powder skiing and helping the public as part of the resort's ski patrol.
Focusing on a collaborative approach, Romesser envisions the VA as a liaison between the vets and WAS. With the outdoors proving to be a powerful form of treatment, adapting techniques and passions for those involved will allow the program to remain a success for those healing in the mountains.
"It's pretty amazing to see their progress," says Romesser. "At first the veterans don't want anything to do with it, but by the end of the day, they are smiling."