River House Veterans Give Back When Tragedy Hits

It’s been 8 long months since I posted here on my River House website. Eight months ago, tragedy struck our lives when Todd fell off the roof and broke his neck, causing him to become an incomplete quadriplegic (C3-5) . Todd and I have been very busy trying to learn how to navigate our new lives and putting a tremendous amount of money and time into rehab, therapy, etc. trying to help him gain as much back as possible. I had to put my veterans and my outings on hold for a good half a year until I could finally come up for air.

We recently had our first event and enjoyed a delightful campfire dinner with a nice group of our favorite veterans. (pictured below). In the meantime, some of my guys have stepped up to really support us. A favorite, Dan Stein (one of the heroes in my last book, “Walking Toward Peace- Veterans Healing on America’s Trails,) has very generously offered to come up to our home very Sunday and work with Todd. Dan is taking his knowledge of working out, weights, muscle groups etc., and has Todd on a special weight training program so he can regain his strength back. Dan also spends a great amount of time stretching him beforehand. It is a good thing that Danny is so strong! It is so good for Dan to have the opportunity to share his knowledge and expertise, his experiences in rehab, and his big heart with Todd. The two have a fabulous relationship.

A few of the guys have considered that River House’s Director (that would be me) needs a break from full time caregiving, so Ryan Aulman took me mountain biking across the Blue Mountain and then climbed the Port Clinton Fire Tower for a breathtaking view. It was just what I needed. Mario Kovach came down from NY state to visit and to help and take me cycling on the Schuylkill River Trail while he rode his new toy- a single wheel. Annie and Mike Schnur, my dear Board Members, made a great dinner for Todd and I and then Annie took me kayaking on beautiful Leaser Lake. They have a great handicap accessible launch there which we are eying up for Todd down the pike.

Todd and I hosted a retired EOD veteran, friend of Mario’s Bo Brickley, who we brought home and fed etc. as he was thru-hiking the entire Appalachian Trail, with his friend. Bo is the first veteran that I know of who read my book and decided that hiking was for him and went for it in a big way. Bo is closing in on finishing now as he recently entered the last state of Maine.

River House also sponsored our first veteran to long distance hike, Adam Perry, who went down to Georgia and began hiking north on the AT- he got quite a few hundred miles under his belt before he had to return home unexpectedly but it was enough to make him fall in love with the sport and realize how much it can heal.

So we are getting our feet wet back in the activities and events with our River House veterans. A big one coming up is the first weekend of October when we rent out the Boy Scout Camp in New Ringgold and offer a full weekend of outdoor fun and camping to our vets and their families.

Ryan Aulman taking me on a mountain bike ride across the Blue Mountain to the Port Clinton Fire Tower, to give me a much needed break from care-taking.

River House Vets Give Back

This morning, five of our “regulars” veterans, gave up their time to help repair the super cool, long boardwalk at the Oreland, PA Troop 1 Boy Scout Camp in New Ringgold, PA, which was damaged in the flood last year. Our organization has the pleasure of renting the 18-acre camp every first weekend in October as a special camp-out weekend for our vets and their families. We are generously offered to rent the camp at a reduced price since we are a veteran’s aid org. This fall, we noticed that the boardwalk was damaged and Todd and I offered to give back and help the troop when they wanted to repair it. A great combination of expertise and young veterans’ muscles made the task swift and relatively easy. The troop that was renting for the weekend graciously offered to feed our guys lunch. We all felt good after the job was successfully completed- the troop now has a secure, safe and completed boardwalk to walk and our veterans had the chance to give back to an organization that helps us. Thank you Adam, Jean, JR, Ryan, Mike, and Todd.

Serving Our Veterans and their Families at our Annual Boy Scout Camp Out

We had another wonderful camp out weekend at our local New Ringgold Boy Scout camp. It is privately owned and rented to us so we can serve our Veterans AND their families. It is such great fun to see the kids playing, romping in the creek, enjoying the fire, going on hikes in the surrounding woods and countryside. I led a 10 mile loop bike road on quiet rural roads this year- sometimes we paddle. Veteran Jen Daccus led the vets in a morning yoga session! Once again, we had fabulous meals cooked by our chef and Board Member, Tim Minnich. This year he had some help with Pastor Jason Stump and Abby Vanluvanee. We had an active duty Air Force member come with his family from NJ, and many repeat veterans and some new ones too. Two local young Dalkner girls from the area offered to play their trumpets for entertainment, as well as a Veteran Singer/Songwriter Ron Capps made a special appearance. Ron was on his was from Maine to DC and offered to come attend and play selections from his new album just released entitled, “Trying to Catch Amnesia.” Ron is Director of a wonderfully successful national program called “Veterans Writing Project,” and is a very talented musician. Ron’s lyrics reminded us all, what it feels like inside the heart of a suffering combat veteran and our weekend at the New Ringgold Boy Scout Camp reminded us how much nature can heal.

A Sad Death in Our Veteran Family- Jason Knoll

 “Veteran Jason hiked the whole mile with a stick in his hand, whacking things and playing with it. I couldn’t help but smile. He was behaving like a free boy in the woods. I raised my son, Bryce outdoors, along with his sister Sierra, and so recognized the behavior immediately. Jason was one of twenty Veterans from the Lebanon VA Medical Center, enrolled in a rehab program and out for the day in the woods with River House PA. Jason would disappear over the steep side of the bank as we walked and we’d say, “Where’s Jason?” He was just wanting a better look at the river below, allowing his natural inquisitiveness dictate his actions and movement.”

Posted on July 1, 2016 by cindyrosstraveler

This post was from five years ago. We have had Veteran Jason Knoll’s presence on most of our outings in the past few years, as in dozens. We knew when Jason was going to become a grandfather; and then he proudly shared photos of his granddaughter. He hiked with Jason, paddled, inner-tubed, ran through the Duncan corn maze with him, stretched in yoga class with him; he tended our camp fire and most importantly, he helped Tim with his cooking chores. Jason was always there to help Tim unload and reload at the end of the event, so much so that the new vets thought he was one of River House’s own (as in board member). He actually was one of our own, as in a member of our close veteran family. Jason is now gone and we are so sad. He died from Covid a few weeks ago. We will miss you terribly, Jason.

A BEAUTIFUL TRIBUTE FROM BOARD MEMBER, TIM MINNICH

Jason had a quality about him that often reminded me of a young boy. Although He had a rugged look and arms covered in tattoos, he looked at even the smallest aspects of our adventures through the eyes of young boy.   Jason was never front and cantor for attention.  He was always part of the crowd, weaving in and out and from person to person.   Usually with a smile on his face and eyes wide open as of he just discovered something new.  And that is what Jason had the capability to do, discover something with each experience.   Whether it was the joy of feeding a bottle to a calf or learning hot to make Bunyan burgers, he seemed to enjoy every minute.   What I remember consistently about Jason was the unassuming way he helped at the beginning and end of every event.   He would always be one of the first to help setup or carry things in from the car, and always without being asked.  He just started helping.   Cleanup and takedown would be the same way.   He didn’t even ask what we needed him to do, he just grabbed stuff and started cleaning up or carrying to the car.  He was kind of like one of those quiet superheroes.   Often he would be doing this while everyone else was saying their goodbyes or just gathering.   And there would be Jason off on his own helping out somehow, and never seeking a compliment or a thank you.   I will miss his laugh, I will miss his boyish grin.  I wish I had taken the time to tell Jason how much I appreciated him over and over, but knowing him he would have looked to the side with a slight smile and just looked for something else to do to help.   It doesn’t seem fair that a soldier who experienced so much, suffered so much, and recovered and learned to embrace life should be randomly be taken by Covid.   Up until this point, nobody that I knew or had cared for had been lost to Covid.   Losing a warrior turned kind and gentle soul just doesn’t seem fair.  I can only be grateful that I was able to get to know him even just a little bit through River House.  

ORNITHERAPY at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

My Veterans had a very special event offered to them by supporter Mary Therese (MT) Grob of HMS as well as Holly Merker, author of Ornitherapy- For your Mind, Body and Soul. We met at the new amphitheatre that Todd carved and learned how birds can help transport us to a place of peace and healing. We already knew how just being in the natural world can help change us but now the gift of birds present in our lives can add an even richer dimension.

Holly handed out binoculars, journals and a writing tool and taught the veterans how to tune into mindful awareness in order to see and hear the gift of birds around us. We walked to the garden and pool and learned more, then to South Lookout and on to North. Afterwards, everyone returned to Cindy & Todd’s log home for a delicious shrimp boil by board member Tim Minnich, a campfire, hand-cranked ice-cream, and more sharing. Everyone departed feeling uplifted as usual, and with a renewed interest in witnessing the migration on the mountain this fall. Thank you MT and especially Holly for your generous offering of time and expertise. You have lit a fire.     

“Look for the Helpers”

This makes my heart happy. One of my veterans, Ryan Allman, said he wanted to get a canoe for his young family so they can get out in nature on the lake. I posted on my FB page and in 5 minutes I had a canoe for them. A very generous, kind FB friend messaged me ( C.J. Penzone) and said that he had one that was no longer being used. Mr. Rogers said, “Look for the Helpers.” I am so glad there are people out there who want to help me take care of these veterans.

Fun in the Woods

Another great River House PA event- had a few regulars, a few returnees, whom we haven’t seen for a few years, a few kids, and a few new folks- It was a wonderful hike on the PA state gameleands and while the hemlock and rhododendron forest provided some shade, a deep hole in the native brook trout offered some cooling relief for the few that were brave enough. Smoked bbq ribs and homemade french fries by our chef Tim Minnich and deviled eggs by Susan Mc Cartney. A fun time was had by all!

Veterans Recreating at Middlecreek

Another great River House PA Veterans’ event- this time out at Willow Point at Middlecreek Wildlife Management Area on the Lebanon/Lancaster line. Tim Minnich, board member, pulled out supper to the point, where we watched the great show of snow geese and made everyone around us big time jealous with Irish beef stew over baked potatoes, crusty bread, and pecan and apple pie. We all had a great time chatting and being together, especially our Veterans, Mike Schnurr, Dan Stein, Corrin Meck, and Ryan Allman. It has been a long isolating winter for us all so it was wonderful to get outdoors and celebrate the natural world in each other’s company.

Walking Toward Peace-Veterans Healing on America’s Trails

By Cindy Ross

An inspiring narrative about finding purpose in the outdoors, healing in nature, and hope for veterans

NEW APRIL 2021

Walking Toward Peace explores the intimate stories of veterans who have wrestled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Through a process called “ecotherapy,” spending time in nature to promote healing and mental health, they have found new tools to deal with issues resulting from combat experiences: survivor’s guilt, nightmares, lack of trust, depression, hypervigilance, thoughts of suicide, and lack of purpose. Some veterans profiled here have gone to extremes, spending months on long-distance expeditions such as hiking the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail or canoeing the 2,320-mile Mississippi River. For others, however, brief excursions in the outdoors can offer an opportunity for healing.

Author Cindy Ross shares current research and perspectives of professional therapists and provides information on organizations devoted to healing veterans in the outdoors. Through the veterans’ collective stories of wartime traumas and their present lives, what becomes clear is that anyone suffering from any form of PTSD may discover the powerful comfort and healing that can be found in the outdoors.

Cindy Ross writes about healing through nature for a variety of publications, including Stars & Stripes, Military Times, Yoga Times, and Appalachian Trail Journeys. She is director of River House PA – Healing in Nature, a nonprofit that coordinates with Pennsylvania-area Veteran Affairs hospitals to take veterans into nature to hike, paddle, and mountain bike. Ross is the author of seven books and lives in New Ringgold, Pennsylvania.

Praise for Walking Toward Peace

“Walking and hiking, especially in an ancient wilderness, can heal the mind and body. I say this with certainty after my own 3300 mile walk across America. Read this book as a reminder. Read it as an inspiration. Whether you are trying to manage PTSD or the daily struggles of life, this book is for you. It should be on everyone’s shelf.”

Rory Fanning, author, Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America

“Cindy Ross has written a book that is an ode to those who serve, an accounting of the true costs of that service, and the stories of healing that only the natural world can bring. Each profile offers courage, hope, and example to all those who have been lost, offering a guide and companion to walking in and with the wilderness to find peace.”

— Shannon Huffman Polson, author, The Grit Factor: Courage, Resilience and Leadership in the Most Male Dominated Organization in the World

“In Walking Toward Peace, Cindy Ross reveals some of the most essential ingredients necessary for veterans healing from the horrors and invisible wounds of war. She shares the stories of two dozen wounded warriors who immerse themselves in nature, giving them compassionate witness and amply demonstrating how nature, storytelling, and community are homecoming elements for all warriors. Ross provides these healing examples in a generous and accessible manner.”

— Edward Tick, PhD, author, Warrior’s Return: Restoring the Soul After War

“Cindy Ross’s Walking Toward Peace is a window into the psychological wounds inflicted on America’s combat veterans, as well as a thoughtful consideration of the therapeutic value of long‐distance treks in salving those wounds. I found the book to be highly engaging, thought‐provoking, and a welcome addition to the literature on the health promoting properties of nature‐based recreation.”

— Daniel L. Dustin, PhD, author, Nature’s Grace: America’s Veterans and the Healing Power of Nature

“The stories of the Veterans and the professional studies Ross cites in Walking Toward Peace give a scientific basis to the power of Mother Nature. And, as a person of African American descent, I am happy to see her address Veterans of color and the issue of why more are not attracted to the natural world and the need to engage them in outdoor activities.”

— Anthony Jackson, Major General, US Marine Corps (Ret) and former Director, California State Parks

Walking Toward Peace provides a rich map to the healing power of long‐trail hiking, with way‐points provided by military veterans from Earl Shaffer to men and women coming home today from countless deployments around the world. . Readers will realize, however, that the power is in the journey, not the destination, and will be impressed by Cindy Ross’s adroit writing and trailside intimacy with many of the veterans she meets along the way. I invite you to join in the journey of this book and find some healing of your own.”

— Stacy Bare, US Army veteran, adventurer, and filmmaker, Adventure Not War

“I am elated by the stories Cindy Ross shares here of how individually and collectively these valiant warriors are able to find solace, peace, and a return to sanity in the comforting arms of our Mother Nature. I hope this book helps enlighten others like me, and reinforces the respect and gratitude we owe our defenders and our shared life support‐system, Nature.”

— Audrey Peterman, author, Legacy on the Land: A Black Couple Discovers Our National Inheritance and Tells Why Every American Should Care

Available for excerpt, book review and/or author interview Media & events contact: Tess Day, Publicist, Mountaineers Books, 919‐619‐3318 Tessd@mountaineersbooks.org

Available for excerpt, book review and/or author interview Media & events contact: Tess Day, Publicist, Mountaineers Books, 919‐619‐3318 Tessd@mountaineersbooks.org

“Combining first‐hand accounts with compelling and current research, Cindy Ross focuses on the soldiers’ capacities and abilities, broadening their personal strength to heal and, overtime, improve their mental, spiritual, and physical health. She has provided a beautiful, thoughtful, and useful book that will indeed help veterans but, I would add, also other survivors of trauma.”

—Joyce Mikal‐Flynn, EdD, FNP, MSN, author, Anatomy of a Survivor: Building Resilience, Grit, and Growth After Trauma

“While many can speak to the restorative aspects of nature, this book magnifies the power of the wild to heal wounds that seem too deep. The intense memories experienced by these veterans are so raw that the pain seems untouchable until they are immersed in the forest, where the adversity of the walk and the healing stillness of nature together offer restoration and wholeness.”

— Beth Jones, Certified Nature Forest Therapy Guide

Walking Toward Peace helps put a face not only on the trauma that war inflicts on our veterans, but also the promise that nature provides them for healing and hope. Cindy Ross helps us to witness examples of this transformation and also understand that nature isn’t a miracle cure—but it is a powerful first step in the long journey toward a peaceful soul.”

— Teresa Ana Martinez, Executive Director, Continental Divide Trail Coalition

“These stories of warriors finding true solace on the trail show us the resilience of these men and women and how, through connecting with nature and all the pleasure and pain that comes with the physical commitment of a long‐ distance hike, healing is possible.”

— Sandra Marra, President and CEO, Appalachian Trail Conservancy

“Cindy Ross listens, as she hikes with these men and women, to stories that are usually only shared with fellow vets who can truly understand. Walking Toward Peace will inspire all those seeking a moment of grace and a path toward healing.”

— Kevin Ferris, co‐author, Vets and Pets

“When we honor our veterans, it is tempting to forget their humanity. Cindy Ross opens a window to the whole stories of men and women deeply affected by war and their time in uniform. She asks the reader to understand that they are not all angels or heroes, but simply individuals who did their duty and want to come home as best they can. Her book offers perhaps the most important tribute we can provide our veterans: the truth.”

— Mike Gambone, author, The Greatest Generation Comes Home: The Veteran in American Society

Walking Toward Peace places you in the hearts and minds of veterans from different generations and service branches as they struggle with wartime memories. Ross masterfully captures their stories of healing and redemption as they travel the Appalachian Trail and other long‐distance routes. This is a must read.”

— Brigadier General Jerry Otterbein, US Air Force (Ret)

ABOUT MOUNTAINEERS BOOKS: Anindependent,nonprofitpublisherbasedinSeattle,WA, Mountaineers Books has crafted award-winning books on outdoor recreation, travel, and adventure since 1960 with the publication of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, now in its 9th edition. Including imprints Skipstone and Braided River they have over 700 books in print and/or e-book. New titles out this season include: Mud, Rocks, Blazes by Heather “Anish” Anderson, A Shape in the Dark by Bjorn Dihle, Orca by Lynda V. Mapes, and more. http://www.mountaineersbooks.org.

240 pages, 17 b&w illustrations, 6 x 9, paperback, $19.95, ISBN 978‐1‐68051‐303‐5

Available for excerpt, book review and/or author interview Media & events contact: Tess Day, Publicist, Mountaineers Books, 919‐619‐3318 Tessd@mountaineersbooks.org

GILBERTO CRUZ-AYALA- another Veteran Success Story

Some of you might remember Gilbert as the veteran in the wheelchair that always wanted to attend River House events, be they hikes or paddles. We got the other vets to push his chair over roots and through gravel on the trails, and muscled his chair down to the lakeside to lift him into a canoe. He loved being in the natural world and we made it happen for him.

Well Gilbert has made a remarkable recovery after being confided to a chair for 10 years as well as struggling with pain. He attended some intense, alternative pain release therapy and is now WALKING on his own! I don’t want to give too much away as Gilbert is one of the stars in my upcoming book, Walking Toward Peace- Veterans Healing on America’s Trails, which will be released April 2021, but I do want to celebrate Gilbert here for another reason.

Since all events were cancelled with the Lebanon VA, who Gilbert normally attended River House events with, we could not hold hikes and campfire dinners for the whole of 2020. This was making Gilbert very unhappy, for he needed his time in not only nature, but with his fellow veterans. He approached me and asked if we could do a private hike with the PTSD group that he is a member of. Gilbert reached out to all the vets, invited their spouses and their children and together, we hosted two very successful outings in the last few months.

Gilbert wasn’t sure at first that he could be a good leader and talk his fellow vets into coming out, as this group as a whole often has trust issues, especially when dealing with folks who are not in their military family, as most of us at River House are not. But Gilbert was hugely successful and managed to not only get a nice group out but they all had a great time as well! As usual, board member, Tim Minnich made the group delicious food like Louisiana gumbo.

Todd and I went to New Mexico to hike for a month during the beautiful fall season and Gilbert was wishing he could have another scheduled hike. “You can do this yourself,” I encouraged him. “They all know you and trust you (there are about 20-25 members in the PTSD group). Do a pot luck or have them all bring a sandwich for a picnic if you all want to share a meal afterwards. YOU are the glue that holds that group together, Gilbert” and he glowed with satisfaction and pride, knowing how he was helping his fellow veterans and himself at the same time.

So today on Veteran’s Day, I celebrate Gilbert, who had the courage to not only seek alternative therapy for himself, but created a way to get himself and his fellow struggling vets out into nature, even during a pandemic.