By Johnny Killmore (CORPORAL (E4) - USMC & US ARMY)
There is a carpool lane on the road to happiness, and it’s called AdventureVet. While many charities and organizations focus on improving quality of life for veterans, fewer take into account the family unit that is quite likely the most important part of a veteran’s daily life. Dave Frey took note of this fact while operating the Veterans Charity Ride. The ride itself takes wounded and amputee veterans on the ride of a lifetime, but also has a lesser-known program called VetFam, which brought some of the vets back with their families.
Seeing the level of impact this had for participants, an idea that would become AdventureVet soon took shape, using the natural beauty around Moab, Utah as a backdrop. To accommodate families the most important tool is flexibility. Children are of different ages and have different interests, they wake up at different times, and we all know how stressful it can be herding the entire family together and following a strict itinerary.
To counter this, AdventureVet relies on a “buffet” style of activities. Each day multiple activities are available but optional. Individuals can choose what they want to do, or do nothing. With the support of the Red Cliffs Lodge (only 10-minutes away), there is horseback riding, rafting in the Colorado River, or lounging around on the panoramic wooden decks.
Back at AdventureVet headquarters, there is also a deck and hot tub for more relaxed days, along with a host of vehicles to choose from, all ready to explore the surrounding mountains. Sponsored by Mahindra, AdventureVet has several ROXOR side-by-sides, including one that features hand controls and an automatic transmission so that amputee or paraplegic veterans can get out on the trail. There are a host of motorcycles available for trail riding as well, including a Ural off-road sidecar outfit and several smaller dirt bikes: easy to manage for those new to trail riding.
Through sponsorship with both Indian Motorcycle and Champion Sidecars, there are several gorgeous touring motorcycles if families want to head into Moab for shopping, ice cream, or to check out the growing number of food trucks filling in downtown. Sidecars give a unique experience in that you can enjoy the freedom of being on a motorcycle yet still bring small children along. Passengers also get a much better view sitting in a sidecar, and parents can easily look over to enjoy the look of excitement on their child’s face as they try something new.
This was evident during a recent trip to Arches National Park. Neil Frustaglio and Josh Stein are both Iraq War veterans and rode on the Veterans Charity Ride in 2017. They both brought their families out to AdventureVet together, and were pleased with how easy it was to manage kids ranging from five to sixteen years old while still seeing so much of what Utah has to offer.
Neil summed up the availability of sidecars well when he said, “for the kids, the younger kids, it seemed like the white-water rafting was a favorite, but I really enjoyed taking them in the sidecar to Arches [National Park]. We had been trying to go but had rain, then on our last day there we were able to get out and see it, and I really enjoyed being able to look over and see my kids enjoying it as well.”
Veteran Josh Stein also saw the value of AdventureVet’s buffet style for picking daily events, especially when bringing a family along. “Individually I could see it on my kids’ faces, what they liked. One of them liked rafting, one of the girls liked off-roading, one of them liked horseback riding, one of them liked just being able to be in Utah because it’s so pretty,” he says.
It’s worth noting the rarity of taking two families on a vacation together and actually being able to make everyone happy. Family road trips are so notoriously stressful that National Lampoon spawned a successful series of movies in the 1980’s making fun of how difficult the great American road trip is. Yet here is AdventureVet, bringing not one but two families out from Texas, then providing a format that allowed the whole family to enjoy themselves while not causing their parents to work overtime solving small family crisis’.
“That’s one of the toughest questions as a father with a wife and four girls,” says Josh, “‘how do I make you happy?’ What if it’s not making you happy, [but] giving you the experiences in life that you wouldn’t normally have if you stayed home? And I think for me that’s what it is, was giving them different experiences individually. Giving them a different outlook on what they could be doing in the future with their life. It’s about opening doors and opening their eyes.”
And that is a key difference between a vacation and a program. The elements are the same in this case: taking the family to a beautiful destination and finding fun activities. Yet the activities aren’t the reason for AdventureVet. The program exists to stir interaction and reflective thought without the stress that can be caused by deliberate introspection. Veterans already know how to think deeply about their past and their future; they can become haunted and emotionally paralyzed from it.
Their military training tells them to create a plan that lets them neutralize a threat… to destroy an enemy. If the enemy is your own thoughts or a growing rift in the bond you have with your children, that type of response will make things worse. AdventureVet knows the importance of having enough structure that veterans don’t have to constantly stay on top of itineraries and treat their vacation like a mission, but still having a loose enough structure that veterans can “clock out” of the need to attack every problem like a soldier. They can relax for a moment and realize that things are okay, and the real goal is to provide love and opportunity for their children.
Although the physical injuries from the battlefield have healed, the emotional injuries will involve a lifelong recovery process. AdventureVet is in the strange place of wanting to make that process as long as possible, because the only available alternative to that healing process is a missed chance at life, either by extreme withdraw or the tragedy of suicide.
And so the mission continues. Just as the healing process for an individual, a family, or a community is ongoing, AdventureVet must continue to expand its reach and refine its programs. The war in Iraq and Afghanistan alone have left the United States with 1,558 severely amputated veterans, 7,224 severe brain injuries, and 118,829 diagnosed cases of PTSD. This is to say nothing of the many veterans of other wars, as well as the countless number who suffer in silence. We at AdventureVet ask you to help us make an ongoing and lasting difference in the lives of more veterans and their families.
1-Source: Congressional Research Service; http://www.allgov.com/news/top-stories/leftovers-from-afghanistan-and-iraq-wars-1558-amputations-7224-severe-brain-injuries-118829-post-traumatic-stress-disorders-140303?news=852580