Tuesday night, I was fortunate to attend a riveting, curiously unusual panel discussion among ex-athletes and veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The title, “Sports, War & The Healing Power of Nature”, was curiously unusual. So, too, was sponsor-venue pairing, The Sierra Club and The New York Stock Exchange. And the evening’s central theme–that access to the outdoors speeds healing, particularly from brain trauma, was perhaps the most curiously unusual of all.
The notion that access to the outdoors/nature can significantly speed the healing process from brain and other traumas makes some intuitive sense. The stories panelists told at “Sports, War & The Healing Power of Nature” made the linkage between outdoors and healing several orders of magnitude more powerful than anyone’s intuition ever could.
Stacy Bare, Director of the Sierra Club’s Outdoors Program, (which, among other things, provides access to nature for veterans and their families), Iraq War veteran and skier/climber, introduced the evening. Bare recounted how he, a Philadelphia Flyers fanatic, bonded with Mike Richter, NHL Hall of Famer and Stanley Cup-winning goalie for the rival New York Rangers, over 1) a few beers and 2) how getting outdoors helped Richter and people with whom Bare served recover from brain trauma.
Tuesday’s event was a outgrowth of the Bare-Richter connection as both were on the panel. Joining them were as inspirational a panel as you could find, anywhere:
- Harry Carson, NFL Hall of Fame, Super Bowl winning linebacker for the New York Giants
- Don Davey, retired defensive lineman with the Green Bay Packers and Jacksonville Jaguars, and now a world class Ironman triathlete.
- BriGette McCoy, Gulf War veteran and Founder of Women Veteran’s Social Justice, a peer support-based nonprofit for women vets and their families. In 2013, she testified at the US Senate hearings on Sexual Assault in the Military.
- DJ Skelton, an Army Major who was severely wounded at the Second Battle of Fallujah in 2004. He is co-Founder of Paradox Sports, a non-profit that provides inspiration, opportunities and adaptive equipment to the disabled community, “empowering their pursuit of a life of excellence.”
Major DJ Skelton navigating a climbing wall. Skelton, who suffered life-threatening injuries suffered at the Second Battle of Fallujah, shared his conviction that access to the outdoors played a key role in his recovery. He spoke at “Sports, War and the Healing Power of Nature” panel discussion Tuesday night in New York City. (Photo Credit: The Daily Mail)
Moderating the proceedings was Steve Fainaru, Pulitzer Prize winning author, Senior Writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine and co-author, along with his brother, Mark Fainaru-Wada, of League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle For Truth (click here for GSB’s review of the PBS Frontline documentary of the same name). There is probably no one with better knowledge of all aspects of this topic than Fainaru and he displayed that knowledge with his questioning, which brought to light that:
- Despite massive injuries (loss of one eye, the use of his left hand, shattered ankle, among other things) and 60 surgeries, Skelton was, thanks to the encouragement and hectoring of his friends in the climbing community, able to get back on the mountain. That sped his recovery and led to the formation of Paradox Sports. And to another tour of duty in Iraq (his choice).
- Richter’s hockey career ended prematurely due to two severe concussions and a fractured skull. That was only the beginning as Post Concussion Syndrome led to debilitating headaches and devastating sensitivity to light and noise. Richter, “wanting his life back” went to his house in the Adirondacks for long stretches. He claimed the clean air, walks in the woods and just being outside was critical to getting his life back. And get his life back he did, and at the intersection of Green & Sports, no less: Richter is CEO of Healthy Planet Partners, an energy efficiency/clean energy finance company based in Greenwich, CT.
- BriGette McCoy’s trauma was not on the battlefield; rather, she suffered from 2 sexual traumas and a car accident while in the military. This led to difficulty walking and reading. At her wits end, McCoy was invited, along with her daughter, to a retreat out in the country. She could, according to the friend who invited her, “quiet the brain stem” out in the woods. It was a game changer for McCoy as her health began to improve almost immediately.
- Harry Carson, one of the toughest, hardest hitting players of his era, likely suffered as many as 15 concussions during his career, which ended in 1988, and has been diagnosed with Post-Concussion Syndrome. Slurred speech, forgetfulness, headaches, irritability and depression were the result. He considered suicide. What kept him going? Responsibility to his daughter was #1. Also high up on the list was access to the outdoors. In Carson’s case the outdoors could mean a city (he just finished a trip to Paris in which he walked the entire city, much to the consternation of his family) or the country. Carson echoed the rest of the panel when he said he strongly believes being outside was a crucial factor in his recovery.
- Bare reported that there is no hard scientific data at present on the value of access to nature for sufferers of brain trauma. There is anecdotal evidence in support of the theory and there are plans for studies to determine the extent of the link.
BriGette McCoy, former US Army Communications Specialist, testifying in front of US Senate panel in 2013 on the problem of sexual assaults in the military. She believes that going on a retreat in the country jump started her recovery from the trauma of two sexual attacks and a car accident while in the service. (Photo Credit: Mun2 TV)
“Sports, War & The Healing Power of Nature” was convened 1) to generate awareness of, and interest in the topic, and 2) to raise funds for Sierra Outdoors Club. I’m quite sure they were successful on #1. On #2, I hope this post can spur some additional donations.
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