SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. -They are wounded warriors, American veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and other recent wars only to return home suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or addiction.
Eight veterans from the Butler Veteran's Administration Hospital took the high bar to healing Monday when they visited Slippery Rock University for a special training exercise. The vets, and a select group of SRU students, participated in high ropes, climbing and balance activities at SRU's Leadership Training Center as part of a pilot program called "TRAIL (Therapeutic Recreation and Independent Leisure) to Wellness."
Colleen Cooke, SRU associate professor of parks and recreation, and Betsy Kemeny, SRU instructor of physical education, developed the program. The activity complements the national Wounded Warrior program that SRU has offered to other veterans, although the other program provides physical activity mainly to older veterans.
"I have a particular interest in treatment of addictions and mental health issues," Cooke said. "What I came up with was a leisure education program that would address the quality of life needs of wounded warriors who have post-traumatic stress or addiction."
Cooke said she and Kemeny conceived the idea after participating in a workshop at the American Therapeutic Recreation Association annual conference last fall. Therapeutic recreation therapists work with clients to improve physical, social, emotional and cognitive function. In the case of veterans, therapists help them address problems and transition back into society after the trauma of active duty, with an emphasis on wellness, self-esteem and providing alternatives to drug and alcohol use.
Cooke said people with addiction and post-traumatic stress issues experience boredom, lack of self-esteem and often struggle with what to do to keep busy. Monday's exercise helped them believe in themselves and realize that they can accomplish goals, she said.
Working in a drizzle, veterans donned safety helmets and were hoisted, with help from students, to the top of the tower. They walked tightropes between poles or rode a zip line from the 40-foot tower above the ground for 200 yards.
The vets smiled and high fived each other with frequency. One veteran joked that it's not an "Army" drill without a little rain.
"They loved it," Cooke said. "They were just so appreciative."
Cooke said many addicts believe recovery is impossible, so one of the goals of the training was to give veterans a task that allows them to experience success.
"We wanted to give them a sense of 'I can do it,'" Cooke said.
Monday's activity was the fourth week veterans were on campus for the program. Earlier sessions connected veterans to quality-of-life workshops, leisure interest assessments, beam building, weightlifting and the rock wall at the Robert N. Aebersold Student Recreation Center and riding at SRU's Storm Harbor Equestrian Center.
Chelsea Peterson, a therapeutic recreation major from Pittsburgh, said she got involved with the veterans through her class, "Therapeutic Recreation Interventions."
"I always enjoy working with veterans because it is such a rewarding experience to be able to listen to their stories, and struggles, and to see where they are now," she said.
Peterson said students started out with icebreakers to get to know names and some basic facts about the veterans.
"After the icebreakers, we moved up to the high ropes course," she said. "Many of the veterans went up to the zip line with no fears at all. Some of the other veterans needed some encouragement and support - we students and the fellow veterans made sure to do that for them."
There were other challenges at the high ropes such as climbing the tower wall and climbing a pole to walk a tight rope.
"When watching one of the veterans walk across the tight rope, I could see that he was shaking because he was nervous," Peterson said. "I was shocked to see this because I automatically thought that he, being a veteran, was fearless, but then I realized that he is just like everyone else and may be afraid of heights just like me. When he came down I said, 'you did great, how was it?' he responded by saying, 'Awesome.'"
Peterson, who plans to attend graduate school, said it is valuable to be involved in events like this because it provides an opportunity to listen to stories and learn from participants.
"Events like this help advocate," she said. "Hopefully these veterans will go back home and tell others about their experience, and then we will have even more people involved in the program."
SRU's Leadership Development Center includes the challenge tower, a building and a leadership reaction course for team-building exercises. The Army ROTC program at SRU and professional groups use the site.
Tiffanie Passerrello, a therapeutic recreation major from Allison Park, said she helped encourage veterans to try difference high-ropes course initiatives and engaged them in conversation and different activities in the Leadership Center.
Passerrello said she wants to work with individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities after graduating from SRU.
"The program has also helped me think about a new career path," she said. "I have never worked closely with wounded warriors before and I really enjoyed it."
She said the "TR" program at SRU has given her "amazing opportunities" for hands-on experience.
Thanks to the caring nature of SRU leaders, veterans got some hands-on experience too.
Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.