My Outdoor Life: Wilderness therapy for war veterans

  • Article by: AS TOLD TO BETH DOOLEY , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 26, 2014 - 3:39 PM

In our occasional series on outdoor people and lifestyles, we visit with Ted Harrison, a Twin Cities therapist who uses the wilderness in his work with veterans and others suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.


Ted Harrison is a Vietnam veteran and a therapist with a Twin Cities practice. He often takes his patients camping as part of their therapy.


I grew up in the South, the son of a minister. Our family moved every year for my dad’s work in the backwater towns of Virginia, North and South Carolina. As a kid, I’d wander through the woods, exploring, looking for snakes, finding animal bones and listening for owls. Later, I’d take off for hours to hunt and fish, and I’d lie down near a rushing stream in the sun, it was so peaceful. As a teenager, I dreamed I was an Indian and I learned, after my grandmother died, that we are part Mohawk. My mother discovered our family’s secret written in grandmother’s Bible.

I served in Vietnam, the Brown Water Navy, patrolling along the river delta of the rain forest. 1969 was an especially crazy time in our country. I left the bombings of war to find bombings and protests at home. To live with such violence, you have to be disconnected. There’s an old saying, “When one man kills another, two people die, but one of them walks away.”

As a therapist, my work is in helping people reconnect to their lives through conventional individual sessions, group work and ancient Native American teachings. I counsel prisoners, adjudicated youth and vets, and have found that nature is the greatest healer. Along with my graduate school professors at the University of North Dakota, I’ve studied with Native American teachers to understand the Earth’s lessons.

Dr. Ken Gilbert (University of Minnesota) and I led several wilderness therapy sessions through the boundary waters with Vietnam and Iraq vets. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not a mental illness but a normal response to abnormal conditions. The challenge is for us vets, who have survived war by being disconnected, to relearn how to live comfortably with peace. Our trips had no agenda, we did not determine the number of miles we’d paddle or portage each day. We meandered and took time to watch the mist rising off the lake at sunrise, to listen to the breezes in the trees, and to feel the soft earth on our bare feet. It’s best to take off your shoes and just let your toes sink into the soft grass and mud and allow the energy to travel up through the entire body. We all spend too much time walking on rubber soles over concrete, separated from the ground.

On these trips so far away from familiar surroundings, these vets were free to address the difficult emotional triggers that caught them off guard. The sound of thunder sparked memories of gunfire. Guys would get agitated if we spent more than one night in a campsite because in the jungle you need to keep moving ahead of the enemy. We talked a lot around the campfire.

One morning, paddling a calm, clear lake, the sun warming our shoulders, we passed a tree blown sideways with roots sticking up from the muck. Many of its branches were submerged, but one sturdy limb stood straight up, leafy and green, just waving at us in the breeze. The guy in my canoe whose arm had been blown off in an explosion, pointed, laughing. “Look!” he shouted. “It doesn’t matter how down you get, you can still survive.” That soldier felt deeply connected to the tree and all the wisdom it was sharing with him about resilience and even humor.

Nature doesn’t care if you’ve killed a man, if your buddy’s been killed and you survived, if you’ve lost an eye, if you think you’re a hopeless wreck. When you lie down in the grass, she’ll hold you. The earth can absorb all of our pain.

It’s in this vast wilderness that we learn how to be resilient, how to reconnect, how to live without judgment of ourselves and of others. It’s the place for healing and the peace we can bring back into our daily lives.

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