The Healing Power of The Outdoors: An Interview with Veteran Stacy Bare

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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 Vet­er­ansVet­er­ans Expe­di­tions, and the mem­bers of the R4 Alliance as a start.

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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.

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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!


Stacy Bare, 2014 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year & 2015 SHIFT Conservation Athlete of the Years is a climber and skier, the Director of Sierra Club Outdoors (SCO)–getting 250,000+ people out each year; and a veteran of the Iraq war. He co-founded the Great Outdoors Lab in 2014 to put scientifically defensible data behind the idea of time outside as healthcare in partnership with Dr. Dacher Keltner at the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley. He is a brand ambassador for The North Face and Combat Flip Flops. He holds degrees from the Universities of Mississippi and Pennsylvania and is at home in Salt Lake City with his wife and daughter Wilder. His favorite thing to do in the outdoors is tied between skiing and dog sledding.