For the first time in more than a year, Walter Bosak slept through the night. It happened in June, while camping with his son in a tent along the Susquehanna River. For a combat veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, that kind of peace can be tough to come by.
“It’s so big.” Bosak said. “It’s truly feeling like everything is taken off of you. It’s like being in a boiler room in twelve layers of clothes and you finally get stripped all the way down.”
His restful night came after a full day of kayaking, fishing, and socializing with other veterans on the river in rural Wyoming County, Pennsylvania. The four-day trip was organized by Hunts for Healing, an all-volunteer nonprofit founded in 2009 to provide free outdoor experiences for wounded veterans.
“We bring folks in from all over the country, and there’s no cost to the individual. Basically, all we ask is that they show up and enjoy themselves,” said Larry White, a volunteer and past president of the organization. “In the military, we took care of our troops. This is a continuation of that mission. That’s what we’re all put on this Earth for, to take care of one another.”
Event participants like Bosak are paired with mentors – other veterans who, in many cases, attended previous events as participants themselves. Over the course of several days, they bond over their experiences as veterans, and learn new skills and hobbies, like fly-fishing, kayaking, and hunting with a black powder flintlock rifle.
Participants and volunteers eat a pork chop dinner together on the first night of the river fishing trip. Hunts for Healing was founded in 2009 by Air Force veteran Mindy Piccotti, who passed away in 2018. Her husband, John Piccotti, remains closely involved with the organization. Most of the events are hosted at his property, Ringneck Ridge Hunting Preserve. [Photo by Jim Tuttle]
Military veterans (from left) James Haitsch, Larry White, and Walter Bosak look at photos in the dining hall at Ringneck Ridge. White is a volunteer and past president of Hunts for Healing. "We all try to learn from our experience and overcome," he said. "These guys served us so well and they deserve to be taken care of." [Photo by Jim Tuttle]
The river trip was James Haitsch’s second event with Hunts for Healing. He served in the Navy for 17 years and was wounded by an improvised explosive device during his last deployment. He’s been diagnosed with PTSD and traumatic brain injury, and said these excursions provide rare moments of respite.
“I think connecting with nature helps you get grounded and more centered, and helps you to be more at ease,” Haitsch said. “It helps you see that there’s more to life than just your horrific events. It’s very therapeutic.”
The ultimate goal of all the events is to create a sense of community and a safe zone where veterans can talk through potentially challenging topics.
“The activity is really just the hook to get these soldiers here. We work by getting them out of their room,” said Pete Hatton, president of Hunts for Healing. “Veterans are different from civilians, and combat veterans are vastly different than civilians. What happens a lot of times is that they’ll isolate. They’re no longer with their troops, and they feel cut off. They turn to alcohol, they turn to pills, they vegetate, and they end up shooting themselves.”
On average, approximately 17 military veterans committed suicide per day in 2017, according to a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) report released last year. Veterans accounted for 13.5 percent of all suicide deaths in the country, while comprising just under 8 percent of the total population.
The highest rate of suicide was found in veterans aged 18 to 34, according to the study, and veterans diagnosed with conditions like traumatic brain injury and PTSD are more likely to commit suicide.
Many veterans experiencing psychological symptoms after military service turn to the VA for support, and this is where many veterans who attend Hunts for Healing events first learn about the program.
Lead mentor for the river trip, Ardill Keeler (left), hands a tackle box to Walter Bosak during a break from kayaking down the Susquehanna River. Keeler served in the Army for 13 years and attended his first Hunts for Healing event three years ago."I was like a soup sandwich," he said. "Just because there doesn't look like there's anything wrong with me physically, I'm still jacked up. Other people don't see that. They don't understand it." [Photo by Jim Tuttle]
Hunts for Healing canceled many of their regular events this year in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but decided to hold the river trip – with fewer people. "Last year we had a 50 kayak armada with a chase boat," Keeler said. "This year I only had 11 kayaks and a chase boat. But we still had a good time." [Photo by Jim Tuttle]
“I personally believe that a lot of folks go the route where they might take their life because they feel alone and there’s nobody they can talk to,” White said. “We want them to know that they’re not alone. When they feel like there’s somebody in their corner, they’re more willing to hold on.”
During his service in the Army, White befriended a fellow soldier named Rebekah Hasselman. A few years later, he was back home, working with Hunts for Healing to plan its first family camping event. In search of volunteers, he reached out to Hasselman, who had recently returned from her deployment to Iraq.
At first, she resisted and made excuses for not being able to come, but White persisted until she changed her mind.
“Larry asking me to come help saved my life,” Hasselman said. “Because it helped me come out of my shell that year, and I was really locked away. Coming back from a war zone, you don’t know how to live anymore. Society is not your normal, your war zone is your normal.”
For her, adjusting to life back home was about finding the right balance between taking time for herself and not isolating too much. Finding people who know how to listen – and what not to say – was also important.
“When you get introduced back to civilian life, your family just wants you to be like you were when you left, but you’re not,” she said. “The biggest question I got asked when I came home was, ‘How many people did you kill?’ That is one thing you should never ask a veteran.”
Walter Bosak and his mentor for the river trip, Rebekah Hasselman, chat on the bank of the Susquehanna River. "As much as we give to this program, we get back," Hasselman said. "You connect with these people and you become friends. I've been friends with some of these guys for like twelve years now. It becomes a unique bond." [Photo by Jim Tuttle]
Hunts for Healing volunteer Chris Stone (left) gets a bait bucket ready for Walter Bosak during their trip down the river. "Everyone who works with this program, their goal is to make veterans feel heard and feel special and give them these opportunities to have experiences that they may not have had," Bosak said. "The support and the logistics of it all, it's a really well-oiled machine." [Photo by Jim Tuttle]
Hasselman, who is now a long-time mentor for Hunts for Healing, was Bosak’s mentor during this river trip. He said spending time around other veterans has been an important part of coping with his PTSD.
“I have friends who I love dearly, but they’ll never understand what we’ve been through,” Bosak said. “It’s reassuring for me to come to a place like this and see people who are going through the same struggles I am and dealing with things. I don’t want to say it normalizes it, but it’s easier to open up in this environment.”
Sitting around after dinner on the first night of the river trip, Bosak and several others began talking about some of their triggers for PTSD, like unexpected loud noises and fireworks explosions, as well as specific odors.
“When I get that burning trash smell – if that hits me, it takes me right back in a heartbeat,” Bosak said. “I can see everything.”
Bosak was 26-years-old when he returned home from Iraq and got out of the military in 2006. He soon found himself struggling with symptoms of PTSD, but didn’t seek help until 2010.
After returning to camp, Walter Bosak and his son, Finneus, were invited to try target shooting with a crossbow. Hunts for Healing President Pete Hatton (left) provided some guidance. “It's cool to pick up new things and find new interests," Bosak said. "I think that's one thing the veteran community thrives on. When we get stagnant or idle, that's when we might start to make bad decisions." [Photo by Jim Tuttle]
Walter Bosak shows his tattoo of a Combat Infantryman Badge. A native of Philadelphia, he enlisted in the Army in 1997 and served until 2003. He had been out of the military for a year when he was called back in as part of the Inactive Ready Reserve and sent on a 13-month deployment to Iraq beginning in June, 2005. During much of that time, his unit was based in the city of Ramadi. [Photo by Jim Tuttle]
Walter Bosak helps his son, Finneus, bait a hook during their fishing trip down the river. "He loves being out in the wild and he loves the woods," Bosak said. "And here he's surrounded by people who can really teach him valuable lessons." [Photo by Jim Tuttle]
“It took a lot of time, and a lot of two steps forward, one step back. You’re looking at yourself and you’re relatively healthy and you have all your fingers and toes, and so you feel like you should feel like one of the lucky ones. And you try to tell yourself, ‘just put it behind you. It’s over. It was 13 months of your life. It’s not the end all be all of your existence,’” Bosak said. “But you get stuck. It’s like trying to run in mud.”
Since first seeking help, Bosak has become more outspoken about his experiences in the hopes that it will increase understanding among other veterans and civilians, including his nine-year-old son, Finneus, who came along on the river trip.
Each night after the sun went down, Finneus sat by the campfire with his dad and the other veterans as they traded stories – and plenty of good-natured ribbing – for hours until the fire died down and it was time for sleep. Finneus occasionally asked questions, but mostly just listened.
“It’s important for him to see the after-effects of service and what community really looks like,” Bosak said. “There’s so many different ways to help people in this world, and that’s what I want him to see.”