Huts for Vets was founded in 2013 provide wilderness therapy for veterans. The program has since served more than 200 people. Courtesy photo

Huts for Vets (HFV) is preparing for its 10th season of operation in the Roaring Fork Valley. The Carbondale-based nonprofit’s first of six four-day, all-expenses-paid retreats for military veterans to backcountry huts will depart June 18.

HFV is the brainchild of longtime local journalist, author and environmentalist Paul Andersen. It provides a “unique wilderness therapy program” for those “who have suffered trauma because of their service,” as the organization’s website states. Andersen, who protested the Vietnam War a half century ago, told The Sopris Sun, “I never protested the troops but the policies that put them in harm’s way.”

Increasingly alarmed at the rising suicide rate among veterans, he decided to develop a healing program that combined his love of the outdoors and nature with his experience working on seminars with the Aspen Institute. The result was HFV, founded in January 2013.

Andersen became drawn to the concept of “shinrin-yoku,” a Japanese term coined in the 1980s that literally translates as “forest bathing.” In essence, it involves going out into a forest setting and allowing oneself to be immersed in the experience of being there without distractions. He noted, “Homo sapiens lived a thousand times longer in forest settings than in urban [ones]. Going back to a forest is like returning to a distant home.” He continued, “I started HFV based on it, as a result of a deep connection with self.”

Andersen has combined shinrin-yoku and the rigorous hiking required to get to the huts with a curriculum of contemplative readings by a wide range of writers, including Henry David Thoreau, Kayla Williams, Chief Luther Standing Bear, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Robert Frost, Dena Price Van den Bosch and Edward Abbey — plus, Abbey’s one-time colleague (and Vietnam vet) Doug Peacock. The readings focus on philosophy, the natural world and humans’ place in it and the experiences of post-service veterans to spur discussion, contemplation and introspection.

Those elements are tied in with the participants being together with others who share their challenges. As Andersen described it to The Sun, “Having them with a group of peer vets they can relate to, getting a sense of belonging again — as when they were in the service — being in nature, they can see something much bigger than themselves. A big sense of belonging gives them pause to reflect on a much bigger community of life.”

Responses from some of the more than 200 vets who have come through the program have been overwhelmingly positive. One wrote, “I have come further with braving my post-traumatic experiences in the last three days than I have in two years dealing with the VA.” Another said, “The time outdoors and in the wilderness was exactly what I needed in my life at that moment.”

In transition, and beyond the Valley

Andersen served as HFV’s executive director from its founding until early 2022, when he retired and was succeeded by Alec Peiffer. Peiffer, a Marine Corps veteran, moved to Carbondale after leaving active service to raise a family with his wife (also a former Marine) and pursue a career with a locally-based cybersecurity firm. He joined the RFV board of directors in the fall of 2021.

Peiffer views HFV as “such a fantastic mission, so needed.” He was quick to state that Andersen has been the “core and spirit of the organization,” and that he (Peiffer) “is not trying to change that,” but he said that his main goal was finding ways to reach more of the younger vets.

He noted that it has been easier for older vets or those whose children are no longer at home to attend HFV programs, but it is much more difficult for vets with younger families to participate. He mused, “How do we meet younger vets’ needs wherever they’re at?”

Peiffer has also wrestled with how to expand the program “without diluting the spirit we’ve been trying to create.” Typically, trips consist of about 10 vets each and are run only during the summer months. He fears that expanding programs to, say, 50 or 60 per session, making it “more industrial,” would result in a loss of the comradery and intimacy that vets on past trips have experienced.

One approach has been to establish a relationship with Arizona State University in Tempe, which has a large population of student-veterans and whose students have participated in HFV programs over the years. Andersen led a training program along Arizona’s Mogollon Rim in May 2021. He also has explored, via the U.S. State Department, the possibility of including Ukrainian veterans in HFV programs.

Although Andersen has stepped down from day-to-day HFV operations, he remains in an advisory capacity to the organization and will lead two coed hut trips this summer. The first, from July 13 to 17, to Harry Gates Hut northeast of Aspen, is with HFV alums, whom he hopes will become future program leaders.

Coed group of veterans on a Huts for Vets trip. HFV founder Paul Andersen is third from the left. Photo courtesy of Huts for Vets