BOLTON, Vt. (AP) — Eleven years ago, Gulf War veteran Bryan Ashley-Selleck tried to take his own life. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he said, he'd sought help from the Department of Veterans Affairs and been in and out of psychiatric wards.
Now a weekly gathering with other veterans to ski in the winter and kayak, hike and bike at other times of the year is giving him a chance to help other veterans by sharing his story. He says it's also helping him to heal himself.
"It gives me something to look forward to every week. It gives me structure," Ashley-Selleck, whose face was disfigured by a self-inflicted gunshot wound, said Thursday at Bolton Valley Resort. "Because with PTSD and TBI (traumatic brain injury) you want to just close down, you don't want to get out, you don't want to get around, you get anxious. ... You just feel not like you fit in."
The Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports program is a peer support group for military veterans that uses the outdoors as its setting, said Kelly Walsh, program coordinator for the Bolton program.
Exercise and having more contact with other trauma survivors are some of the lifestyle changes recommended to deal with PTSD symptoms, according to the National Center for PTSD.
"It woke up a part of me," Ashley-Selleck, 47, of Middlebury, said of skiing, which he hadn't done in 15 years. "Doing all these things like skiing, and kayaking and fly-fishing, it takes me back to like being a kid again. It stops all the thoughts and you're mindful and it feels good."
The VA estimates that between 11 percent and 20 percent of veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have had PTSD in a given year.
Jordan Paquette, 30, of Charlotte, Vermont, an Army National Guard veteran, said the weekly outings take veterans' minds off their symptoms.
"Skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, whatever you're doing up here, you're not thinking about your PTSD, you're not thinking about your issues, your depression, things that affect you at home, so coming up here is just a release for a lot of people," said Paquette who now volunteers as a Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports snowboard instructor.
For Navy Gulf War veteran Nicole Luther, 44, it's one day a week that she doesn't isolate herself. Although she's the only consistent member of the group who is a woman and wishes more female veterans would participate, she said she doesn't miss the gathering even on a bad week. About two weeks ago her cat died, but that didn't prevent her from attending the outing.
"It was a bad week but I'd rather be with them than be alone even though I get a lot of comfort being alone. It still meant the world to come up here and be with them," she said.
This story has been corrected to show the organization's name is Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports, not Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sport.