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Recreation Therapy Program for Veterans Offers Relief from PTSD, TBI

Peter Biello
Navy veteran Zech Anderson (right) bikes with Lou Fladger (left) and Northeast Passage recreation therapist Cathy Thompson.

Thirty-five year old Navy veteran Zech Anderson shifts gears on a mountain bike and glides down a leaf-littered path. He’s riding through the woods near UNH with a fellow veteran, Lou Fladger. Anderson’s been down this trail before.

"When I first started doing this biking stuff, I would be huffing and puffing by now," he says. 

This summer he biked once or twice a week, but since classes started, he’s had to cut back to once or twice a month. An organization based on campus called Northeast Passage sets up the rides. The group offers recreation therapy for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury.

Anderson has both. Rides like this give him time to focus on the moment and talk to other veterans. Northeast Passage provides the bikes and the helmets—all a veteran has to do is ask.

Anderson and Fladger served in the military years apart, but they’re both fighting similar battles with their own minds. While serving as a prison guard in Iraq, Anderson kept watch over 150 terrorists. Death threats were routine. Once he was assaulted by a prisoner. Every day was life or death. He couldn’t kick that feeling when he came home.

"My ex-wife would ask me to get a gallon of milk from the store, and I would flip out because I didn’t see a reason why we had to get a gallon of milk right then and there," Anderson says. He’d think: Two miles to the store, two miles back. What if the road is rigged with bombs? What if someone tries to kill me?

After his marriage fell apart, his friend invited him to move to New Hampshire. So he did. Then the VA Hospital in Manchester referred him to Northeast Passage. He’s been biking ever since.

"It’s effective for me because it gets me out," he says. "Instead of sitting in my apartment all day long, watching TV and playing video games, I’m outside moving around."

All that moving around has helped him get off medication to treat his depression. He’s also socializing more.

Jill Gravink started the program and is its executive director.  The program began in 1990 with a focus on helping anybody with a disability. "You just want to be sure that when our veterans return from combat, that they’re able to feel home here. And that’s what we’re trying to accomplish for them," she says. 

In 2006, Northeast Passage received a grant to work with veterans of the post 9/11 wars with physical disabilities. Eventually the program received a $300,000 grant from the VA to serve veterans from any war for any ailment, mental or physical.

"We had a woman who said—her husband was in Vietnam—There’s a whole generation of veterans who are gathering dust in a closet because they haven’t been able to get past some of the post-traumatic stress from Vietnam," says Gravink.

The VA renewed that $300,000 grant last year, and last year the program served 271 different veterans from New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts. Northeast Passage also sends recreational therapists to veterans’ homes to help them become more active outside. 

"We had a veteran that was talking about it was the first time in 50 years he’s been able to feel safe on a golf course," Gravink says. 

It’s unclear whether that $300,000 grant will be renewed next year. But VA officials say they’re confident that some funding—if not this grant—will come through for Northeast Passage.

For Anderson, as the weather cools, he's thinking of taking up a new kind of recreation therapy: yoga.

“If somebody told me five years ago that I’d be doing yoga, I would have told them they were probably crazy. I never would have seen myself doing it.”

Zech Anderson says he’ll keep coming to Northeast Passage—and studying at UNH, where he plans to become a recreational therapist who specializes in helping veterans. 

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