ActiVets is a program of the Big Bend Natural History Association (BBNHA) in Big Bend National Park, Texas. BBNHA Executive Director Mike Boren, a US Army veteran, created the program in 2007 with the blessing of the board of directors, many of whom are also veterans, to offer young veterans of the Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom, OIF) and Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom, OEF) wars a way to heal their physical and psychological wounds in the solitude, peace, and beauty of Big Bend National Park.
The program operates under the aegis of BBNHA 501c3 nonprofit status, but Executive Director Boren raises funds for the program separately from BBNHA earned income. The seed money for ActiVets came from a $25,000 grant from the Permian Basin Area Foundation in Midland, Texas, through the Texas Resources for Iraq, Afghanistan Deployment or TRIAD Program. Later, National Park Service Intermountain Regional Director Mike Snyder authorized a matching grant of $25,000 from the National Park Service. Private donations made up the rest, but at no time has ActiVets had more than $75,000. We have made very good use of relatively little money. We can do so because of the free management and administration of BBNHA and the support of the National Park Service. Such an arrangement enables ActiVets to have what is perhaps a unique position in veterans assistance groups in that 100% of the funds raised for ActiVets supports our veterans programs.
BBNHA charges no overhead for administering the funds, and Director Boren takes no salary, yet ActiVets enjoys the fiduciary oversight of a seasoned volunteer board of directors, as well as the bookkeeping services, liability insurance, and annual financial review of a well-established nonprofit educational corporation, incorporated in the State of Texas and authorized by Congress to act as a cooperating association in Big Bend National Park, Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River, and Amistad National Recreation Area. BBNHA was established in 1956.
In this Centennial Year of the National Park Service, with the wars winding down and the needs of veterans changing, ActiVets is embarking on a fundraising effort to grow our program to a regional and perhaps national level. Our efforts have thus far been concentrated on recreational river trips on the Rio Grande, houseboat trips for veterans and their families on Lake Amistad, and two trips in other states, one on the Salmon River in Idaho for veterans being treated in the Veterans Administration Hospital in Boise, and another last year on the Gunnison River in Colorado for special operations troops from Colorado and Texas. We have served some 350 veterans, approximately 30% of whom were women, on 20 such trips in the last 8 years, while assisting veterans.
Our model of using river trips to build teamwork, something most veterans miss greatly from their military days, and introduce them to friendly networks of successful older veterans (our Council of Elders), is working well. Wilderness provides a soothing and safe environment for veterans to open up and talk about whatever might be troubling them to others who have had similar experiences, and the Council of Elders provides a quiet reminder that there is, indeed, light at the end of the tunnel through which they are passing. Previous generations have made the same journey, and they can as well.
ActiVets assistant director Robert Himber of Golden, Colorado, a Vietnam veteran with a graduate degree in social science , named the program and became our first adviser in designing our trips to maximize benefits to veterans. The staffs of the El Paso Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital OEF/OIF section, and the Big Spring VA Hospital were early advisers, as well.
Father Fred Bayler of Fairbanks, Alaska, a Catholic Priest and former Marine, advised us on the ceremony we conduct at night around a roaring campfire once on each trip. After researching many ceremonies, Father Fred advised us that the ceremony itself was not particularly important. What was important was that we cared enough to take these young men and women into the wilderness and provide a ceremony for them to reenter civilian life. The ceremony we chose is based loosely on the Navajo Enemy Way Ceremony, a welcome-home ritual for ancient Navajo warriors returning from battle. It's a quiet and respectful welcome home. There are only two rules: the Council of Elders is expected to be non-judgmental, and young warriors are asked to be matter of fact, neither apologetic nor braggadocios. Only veterans are allowed to sit at the fire, and though no one is required to speak, all are welcome to speak freely in that safe and accommodating environment. When all who wish to speak have spoken, the group observes a moment of silence in respect for the souls of those killed in battle on both sides of the wars, thus the Enemy Way name. The hope is that by honoring the dead in this way, their memories will not haunt the hearts and minds of those who survived. It has worked quite well according to participants.
We will continue to do river trips, but we will also apply the lessons learned to new areas as we raise the money to do so. Outreach to families of veterans will remain a focal point, because we have learned that the families of deployed veterans suffer their own private kinds of difficulties, many of which are just as difficult as their spouses' difficulties in a war zone. We made our first foray into that arena two years ago by providing family houseboat trips on Lake Amistad to veteran families. They were quite successful but too expensive to continue.
Our next area of focus is to get OEF/OIF veterans involved in their own healing by helping their fellow veterans heal. With suicide rampant in that group, we think that networks of veterans are the group best able to prevent suicide. Indeed, we have met true heroes on our trips, veterans who are amazingly strong and healthy despite their wounds, and the common factor we have seen in them is that they have offered to help fellow veterans in crisis. We want to encourage, facilitate and support more private networks of veterans helping veterans.
Eventually, we plan to migrate our program to the professional management of those veterans and facilitate their growing ActiVets into a national organization. The idea is to pay it forward. Our Council of Elders will eventually become the board of directors of the new organization, and the new organization might eventually become the Council of Elders for the veterans of future wars. Our experiences convince us that the most effective way for veterans to heal is by helping each other.
If you would like to contribute to a small but genuine veterans' organization that devotes 100% of the money it raises to helping veterans, we ask for your help. We would like to raise $500,000 before 2020 to seed the new organization and hire professional management to take ActiVets national. We pledge to you that your donations will be used honestly and appropriately and for the mission you intended, and because ActiVets is a board-sanctioned program of the Big Bend Natural History Association, a 501c3 nonprofit educational corporation, your donation is tax deductible.
ActiVets, Healing the Wounds of War with Wilderness c/o
Big Bend Natural History Association
PO Box 196
Big Bend National Park, TX 79834