Stacy Bare isn’t your average outdoor athlete. He’s a U.S. Army Veteran, the Director of Sierra Club Outdoors, and was National Geographic’s 2014 Adventurer of the Year. But more important than his many accomplishments, is the story he shares. As a veteran the outdoors saved his life after service, and he has dedicated his life to helping others discover the health benefits of outdoor recreation. We recently had the chance to sit down with Stacy and hear his story unfiltered.
How did the outdoors affect your life post service?
I knew I needed to get outdoors and give myself some time to rebuild and heal, so immediately after returning from Iraq I took off on a multi-week surfing expedition to South Africa. It was my first time ever surfing and I spent most of my time falling. Looking back, I think getting wrecked by those waves alone in the water was what I needed to get me through the next two years of my life. But shortly after that trip, I was still a mess. While attending graduate school, I was torn between wanting to descend into a total absence of feeling and a desire to “be productive”. I needlessly hurt people and still have some shame around my actions those first few years home.
With a sluggish economy, I couldn’t find a gig in urban design after finishing my degree. So I ended up in Boulder, CO where I had a friend that convinced me to try climbing. That feeling I got from my first day climbing and surfing, combined with my memories spent outside as a kid, gave me an idea of what I could do to help my buddies returning home from the war. The idea was solidified while on a dog sledding trip in Northern Minnesota. All those outdoor experiences gave me the ability to live in the moment and just enjoy being alive. I couldn’t think about the past or the future, I had to be right where I was or I would fall, lose the dogs, or hit a tree. These experiences also gave me a chance to feel the beauty of the land I fought for. We think of that as an abstract concept, but I actually fought for this physical country and the best of our country’s ideology is wrapped up in our public lands which are for everyone. I realized that by being outside, I was using my rights and privilege as a citizen of our country. What’s more patriotic than that? I also rediscovered some of the positive aspects of war while spending time outdoors with others — camaraderie, a sense of mission, and belonging to something bigger than myself. But at the time I had no idea the outdoors would become my life. I’m lucky.
Is there a specific moment you remember coming to the realization that the outdoors were helping you recover?
Yes! That first climb on the Flatirons. When I got ready to rappel off our route, I lost it. I had a significant panic attack and was shaking violently. When I calmed down and got to the ground I realized that (a), I indeed was suffering from trauma, and (b), that climbing had been the best thing I had done since I got home. It allowed me to think clearly in the moment. The surf trip and my experiences as a kid camping and hiking in the West definitely had an impact on me, but it was that first climb on September 20th, 2009, that I can look back on as the turning point in my life.
Since then, what are some of the things you have done to support other veterans?
Well, it all started out really selfishly you know. I just wanted to not kill myself. But then, I was lucky to have a close friend from back home reach out to me with funding opportunities. He asked what I would do to help other veterans, and I said I’d climb a mountain. Right after that Nick Watson, who was a mountain guide and a fellow veteran, asked me if I knew how to climb a mountain and I said no. He agreed to help, so we co-founded Veterans Expeditions. After working there full-time for a year I left to take a gig with the Sierra Club running their military outreach program, which ultimately led to running their entire outdoor program including military, kids, adults, and members. I got to work alongside an incredible team that helped me immensely.
The two projects I’m most excited about now are the Great Outdoors Lab and Adventure Not War. The Great Outdoors Lab was launched in partnership with the Greater Good Science Center to track the benefits of time spent outdoors with an end goal of changing the way we view personal health and healthcare for all people, not just veterans. Adventure Not War is a personal project where I go back to ski and climb in all the places that I fought or places I helped clean up after their own wars. I went back to climb in Angola in 2015 and I’m hoping to ski in Iraq this winter. Afghanistan, Abkhazia, Bosnia, and Siberia are all still on the list. Get in touch with me if you’re interested in learning more or supporting either of these projects.
By far the coolest thing I’ve done lately is get outside with my wife and our daughter Wilder who was born this year. Man, there’s no greater adventure. I’m learning so much by viewing the outdoors through her sweet eyes!
For people who know a veteran that might be dealing with symptoms related to PTSD, what’s the best way to approach and encourage the individual to give climbing, mountaineering, or some other outdoor activity a try?
If you’ve met one veteran, you’ve met one veteran. I think the main thing is to invite people out on activities you do, but don’t try to diagnose a friend. So if you’re a climber, invite someone out to climb. If you hike, invite someone out to hike. Not for the healing benefit per se, but share your positive experiences and just spend time together. If you can’t do that, share resources and websites like our work at Military Outdoors or the folks at Outward Bound for Veterans, Veterans Expeditions, and the members of the R4 Alliance as a start.
What outdoor related organizations and resources do you recommend veterans and family/friends of veterans check out?
I listed a few above, but there are a lot of outdoor companies that are working hard to both increase veteran hiring, as well as supporting outdoor education for veterans. While not necessarily veteran specific, there’s a lot of very veteran supportive folks in organizations like the Conservation Legacy, National Outdoor Leadership School, and Jack Mountain Bushcraft. They have some veteran specific programming and longer outdoor courses that I wish I had been aware of when I got out.
As a whole, what can the outdoor industry do to make the outdoors more accessible to veterans?
I think the first thing to do is to think about veterans as an asset and to recognize historically the leading role veterans have played in the outdoor industry and environmental conservation. Don’t worry too much about the PTSD, yes it’s an issue and needs to be addressed, but it’s an issue that affects at least five times as many non-veterans as veterans. We can all benefit from increased time spent outdoors. As the outdoor community grapples with issues around inclusivity and equitable access, it’s important to note that “veterans” are a diverse group of people from many races, genders, political parties, religions, and sexual orientations.
The outdoor industry is doing a good job telling stories of veterans and is helpful in raising awareness, but most importantly, veterans need to be seen as partners, not charities. It’s an exciting future full of opportunities!