Invisible wounds. It’s a haunting phrase and one that’s become all too familiar to a vast number of the military men and women serving in conflict zones in recent years. These wounds, a fact of modern war, have proven particularly vexing to the medical teams whose job it is to treat our troops. As many as 40 percent of soldiers returning from active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan experience these wounds, which all too often lead to suicide, according to Fred Foote, a former Naval physician, scholar of the Institute for Integrative Health, fierce advocate for wounded veterans, and leader of the Green Road project.
Let that number sink in. Forty percent; a staggering statistic that is devastating — to the military, to each of the lives the number represents.
I had my first intimate impression of the suffering being borne by so many soldiers while working with a film called That Which I Love Destroys Me; it too dealt with the hidden wounds of war. I became friends with the men and women who were interviewed for the piece; they helped shape my perspective — my thinking and understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury. In connection with the film’s release, we held a series of screening events to specifically reach those who had served. At almost every gathering, at least one would approach the director, or one of the people interviewed in the film, and say that they were contemplating suicide. The reality of this was devastating — coming face-to-face with those who had given so much for our safety and freedom. I became keenly aware of the need for more ways to help them.
The Green Road
It was during a time when mainstream news of veteran suicides was coming with increased frequency that the TKF Foundation received the grant application from the Institute for Integrative Health for what would become the Green Road — a green space designed and built by a team led by CDM Smith, including landscape architect Jack Sullivan, FASLA.
The proposal involved taking a forested piece of land at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, home of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and, while keeping the integrity of the space, making it into a place where the recovering men and women could experience nature as a part of their healing process. Once completed, researchers would study and document the impact of nature on recovery, using a set of newly defined mathematically-based metrics that map and measure the effects of nature on the body. The insights they gain will be used to inform future courses of therapy—not only at Walter Reed but potentially around the globe.
We were immediately drawn to the project. And I was instantly reminded of the men and women I met during my work with That Which I Love Destroys Me.
We know that nature heals, but we also know, like Dr. Foote, that much work remains if we are to convince many naysayers, who still see nature as lacking the potency of a pill; of being a legitimate form of treatment to stand alongside and augment traditional therapies.
Our hope is that this space will act as a blueprint and that more will begin to appear in communities throughout the US; everywhere veterans are suffering. Nature holds an undeniable power to foster healing, even when the psychological wounds are deeper than most of us could ever imagine.
Faced with the rise in traumatic brain injury and PTSD, the military, urged by voices like Fred’s, was convinced a little over 10 years ago, to begin searching for new modes of treatment; notably, modes that stretch beyond the confines of conventional medicine. Enter nature.
In the decade since the military reached out to Dr. Foote, an early proponent of holistic medicine, and of nature exposure, he has worked with prominent civilian and military experts to help craft a structured means to study and measure the impact of whole-body therapies on mental and physical health. Supported by the non-profit Institute for Integrative Health, it was this work that eventually led to the creation of the Green Road, and to the involvement of the TKF Foundation via our National Nature Sacred Awards program.
Today, behind the tightly manicured lawns and sprawling buildings of the nation’s flagship military medical complex at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, this wild yet defined, wooded space offers a refuge. A place to pause in an environment that heals.
Alden E. Stoner is a filmaker and board member of the nonprofit TKF Foundation.