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Free adventure travel for Veterans

MADISON, Wis. -- Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom veterans are provided an opportunity to experience free wilderness expeditions in the United States to develop nature skills and help them readjust after deployment.

Several members of the 115th Fighter Wing who participated in different expeditions by Outward Bound, share their experiences and recommend other veterans should apply.

"It was so much fun," said Tech. Sgt. Stephanie Miles, the executive assistant to the commander of the 115th FW. "We had hardcore adventure with experienced instructors making sure we were safe."

Trips are five to seven days long and veterans can choose between backpacking, rock climbing, canoeing, dog sledding, sailing, sea kayaking and white water rafting.

Although safety is a priority, OB adventure programs are designed to push the limits of what the veterans think is possible. Sergeant Miles participated with one such rafting trip in Oregon.

"I actually thought I was going to die," Sergeant Miles said as she talked about one rafting exercise on the Deschutes River last summer. "I reached and tried to pull myself onto a rock but the river pulled me away."

Instructors taught her how to respond to falling out of a raft. All training was voluntary. Instructors were close by and made sure the participants were always safe. This experience helped her understand safety on the river in a personal way, she said.

If applicants are not selected on their first try, they should not give up.

"The first year I was not selected, but the second year I was," said Lt. Col. John Pietsch, the executive officer of the 115th FW.

The Boundary Waters in Minnesota was Colonel Pietsch's frozen playground as he took part in a dog sledding and winter camping expedition last winter. Beneath a star-filled sky, Colonel Pietsch was tested in survival techniques and self-reliance as temperatures dropped to negative 20 F at night, he said.

"One of the nights involved the guides giving us nothing more than a package of Ramen noodles and waterproof matches, besides our usual camping gear," the colonel said. "We were positioned several hundred meters apart from one another, and each of us had to set up camp all on our own for a night. It was a great confidence builder."

The price of the adventure is hard to beat.

"These trips are as close as you can get to a free lunch, and the confidence you build will be fun at the time and useful throughout life," said Colonel Pietsch.

All costs, including round-trip stateside travel between home and expedition location, lodging en route, food, lodging on site, equipment and instruction while on the course, are fully paid by the Military Family Outdoor Initiative Project. This project is a joint partnership of the Sierra Club and the Sierra Club Foundation, the Disabled American Veterans and the Anschutz Family Foundation.

Master Sgt. Katherine Pinnow, the 115th FW contracting officer, spent a week on the Sierra Mountains in California last summer to backpack and rock climb with three other women in addition to their guides.

"The physical aspect of this hiking and rock climbing made me nervous," Sergeant Pinnow said. She wondered before the trip if a petite 5-foot-2-inch woman like herself could carry a 40 pound pack in the mountains.

Sergeant Pinnow's description of how she successfully navigated up and down the Sierra Mountains was the answer to her own question.

The experience was therapeutic for her and provided an opportunity to leave her cell phone at home and get away, she said. She still keeps in contact with some of the veterans on the trip and is looking into the possibility of becoming an OB veteran instructor herself.

According to www.outwardbound.com, all Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans, who were deployed to these countries, including current and former members of the Active and Reserve Components of the United States military qualify. Current military status (active, inactive, discharged, retired) does not matter as long as veterans were deployed in support of OEF or OIF combat operations while in the military. Military family members are not eligible to participate in this OEF or OIF program. However, see www.sierraclub.org/military for other programs for military family members funded by the Sierra Club.

When asked if they would participate in an OB adventure again, all veterans interviewed for this article had the same response; they would do it again in a heartbeat.

For more information on the Veterans Program course offerings, contact 1-866-669-2362, ext. 8387 or e-mail OB at obvets@outwardbound.org.
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