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Veterans Find Help Working In The Woods

Individual states are stepping up to provide more help to returning soldiers and sailors.  A novel program under the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs uses nature to heal the wounds of war.

Vets also get experience in environmental restoration that could lead to a good civilian job.  Correspondent Tom Banse has more from suburban Seattle.

Twenty-four-year old Sven Soholt is putting his life back together after coming home from Iraq.  The Washington National Guard combat engineer was deployed for a year to the treacherous terrain north of Baghdad.

Iraq War vet Sven Soholt plants shade trees with other members of the Veterans Conservation Corps

Sven Soholt: “Then I got back and tried to go back to my job that I left before. I just was having problems sleeping.  I was having anger issues; didn’t want to be around people.”

A VA counselor referred Soholt to the Veterans Conservation Corps.  It’s something new.  The corps attempts to unite two different public goals: to help returning vets and help the environment.

Soholt is with 24 other former soldiers, sailors and airmen swinging a pick axe.  The mission: to free a salmon stream choked with invasive weeds south of Seattle.  They replant with native cedars, willow, and shrubs.

Conservation corps manager Mark Fischer says you can call it “eco-therapy.”

Mark Fischer: “First of all you get tired, so you don’t have time to think about other things.  Second of all, it frees their minds from daily worries. You’re out here with nature, doing good things for nature. There’s good healing from that I think.”

The Veterans Conservation Corps started two years ago offering volunteer opportunities.  This year, the Washington Legislature increased its budget so it could expand into subsidized environmental job training.  That’s enabled Sven Soholt to leave a diesel mechanic gig and go back to school studying forestry.  He earns a stipend for two days a week of outdoor labor on the state crew.

Sven Soholt: “It’s peaceful. It’s quiet and it’s something I like to do.  I know I’m never going to be the same again and I’ve kind of accepted that.  But it’s helped me realize what I have.”

And what he has is a plausible goal of a new career managing timber stands for the state.

There’s a stark contrast between military life and working with your hands in the Northwest woods explains Navy vet Marcus Taylor.

Marcus Taylor: “Number one, fish and trees don’t fight back, you know.  And being outside, especially on a day like this, it’s got to be fulfilling and relaxing. I take this any day over hiding behind hills and protecting my buddies and protecting myself from gunshots and bombs and all that.”

These vets describe their readjustment to civilian life as difficult.  Unemployment runs significantly higher among veterans than the general population.

Thirty-year-old Keisha Mullings says holding a regular job has been hard since leaving the Navy.  A social worker at the VA medical center mentioned the Veterans Conservation Corps and she was sold.

Mullings searches for soft spots to plant willow shoots.  A jetliner flies overhead. She says being outside is a good antidote for depression.  Longer term, Mullings wants to start her own company doing habitat restoration.

Keisha Mullings: “The business opportunities for veterans, I guess there are some contracts that you can bid on as far as if you want to work for yourself.  There is a lot of work to be done all around Washington State and all over the country and even the world doing earth conservation.”

A researcher from the federal VA has begun a tracking study with these Northwest vets to determine if eco-therapy delivers quantifiable benefits.  Illinois just became the first state to copy Washington’s Veterans Conservation Corps.

Web extras:

WA State Dept. of Veterans Affairs: Veterans Conservation Corps

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