Wednesday, January 29, was a beautiful day at the Bozeman, Montana, airport as Sheep Dog Impact Assistance (SDIA) welcomed more than 35 veterans and first responders to town for a weekend of camaraderie and snowmobiling in West Yellowstone and Yellowstone National Park.
Many of the Sheep Dogs were participating in an SDIA Outdoor Adventure for the first time, and there was nervous excitement, and some anxiety, on many faces. Roger, a Navy veteran, was one of them. He sat alone for a while, and though he spoke with anyone who talked with him, he was quiet, watchful and apprehensive among so many strangers. He had taken a monumental step in helping himself by going on this trip – simply leaving his house was a battle he often didn’t win. But that day he had left his house…and went to an airport, and flew on two planes to get to Bozeman – HUGE wins for many, but particularly for someone suffering from agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety.
“On every outdoor adventure, we see the same initial scenario play out,” said SgtMaj Lance Nutt, SDIA’s founder and CEO. “Most first time participants are a bit anxious because they don’t know what to expect. They’re cautiously excited, but they’ve got their guard up. They might know a little about SDIA, but they don’t know us yet, and they’re wary. After the first 24 hours, they learn that they’re with fellow Sheep Dogs – other like-minded people, many of whom have suffered similar traumatic events and are dealing with the same issues and challenges – and the walls start to come down.“
At the welcome meeting the first night, the group was introduced to staff and briefed on the weekend’s events. Throughout the weekend, SDIA also presented Outdoor Adventure participants with tools collected from today’s best programs on struggling well following trauma and moving forward to achieve post-traumatic growth. These research driven, proven concepts and tools have transformed thousands of lives. By implementing these tools and through casual conversations, SDIA is striving to teach others how to use their traumatic experiences in a positive way…as a springboard into living their best lives.
And as the weekend unfolded, positive changes in the Sheep Dogs became more and more evident.
“It’s fascinating to watch the change in people’s behavior and attitude,” said Bryan Bodrog, counselor at the St. Paul (MN) Vet Center and Yellowstone assistant team leader. “You can literally see the anxiety leave their faces as they realize they’re in a safe place with their brothers and sisters. They become open to sharing their stories, struggles, and successes. The camaraderie they had been missing since they left the service [or their first responder profession] is restored one hundred-fold in a matter of days.”
The first morning on the snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park found guides, staff and Sheep Dogs alike appreciating the vast beauty of the mountains and forest in winter. It was a sunny day with few clouds in the sky, and the exhilaration of speeding across the snowy trails and seeing bison and wolves in the distance helped everyone begin to relax and enjoy themselves. At each stop, Sheep Dogs would chat and laugh, and the bonding grew throughout the day and weekend.
The guides took them on trails following the Gibbon, Firehole and Madison rivers, through the geyser basins to Old Faithful, and stopped to see the Fountain Paint Pots, Sapphire Pool and other breathtaking scenery. When asked if he was having a good time, Roger said he was having “giggly fun,” bringing to mind the joyful abandon children exhibit when playing.
The following day the group got to ride the trails in the National Forest with their teams. Sharing in the experience of riding and helping each other get the machines unstuck bolstered the camaraderie and sense of belonging between team members. When the Sheep Dogs gathered for meals and the nightly meeting, the conversations increasingly became filled with stories, laughter, and genuine care for one another. The discussions on struggling well and post-traumatic growth, and how to apply the tools to daily life, resonated with many.
By Saturday evening’s wrap up meeting, most were tired, but a relaxed, contented look was on their faces. Each had made connections – real connections – with others that had been complete strangers just days before. At the meeting, each team had chosen one person in their group they felt deserved special recognition. Roger was the first to receive a challenge coin and handshake from SgtMaj Nutt.
“It took a lot for you to be here, didn’t it, Roger?” he asked. Roger nodded.
“We appreciate the effort it took on your part to be here,” SgtMaj said. “We have seen a big change in you over these few days, and we hope you will take these memories and new friendships back home with you. Thank you for trusting us enough to get on a plane and spend the weekend with us.”
Sunday morning’s breakfast found Roger at a table, bright-eyed, clear-headed and very grateful. He was no longer alone, sitting “on the couch”, watching life pass by. Though the snowmobiling and terrain brought some physical discomfort, he realized that he was capable of doing much more than he had been doing. And he’s determined to work towards staying off the couch after he returns home.
“It’s usually hard for me to trust…let people in,” he said. “But it was easy with this group…I trust you all. And I thought all the content on struggling well was great. It gave me things to think about and I’m motivated to make positive changes in my life.”
This Outdoor Adventure would not have been incredible experience it was without the support and generosity of the companies and people that worked with us. Huge thanks goes out to: Copper Horse Restaurant & Market in Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN); First Student-Bozeman Charters for transporting our group from & to BZN; Three Bear Lodge & Restaurant for the great lodging and food; SeeYellowstone.com Snowmobile Tours & Rentals for amazing tours and exceptional guides; Black Rifle Coffee‘s Salt Lake City store for providing our participants with a bag of their amazing coffee; Meadow Creek Lodge; West Yellowstone restaurants – Pete’s Rocky Mountain Pizza, Slippery Otter Pub & Bullwinkle’s Saloon & Eatery to name a few; Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center; and Yellowstone Giant Screen Theater.
If you or a Sheep Dog you know are in need of encouragement to make positive life changes and time away from the day-to-day stresses, contact CWells@SheepDogIA.org to get on one of our future Outdoor Adventures.
To view images from this Yellowstone Outdoor Adventure, visit our Facebook Album.