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Westmoreland

Canyon Heroes program seeking more veterans in need of healing

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Heather Uphold (front row, far right) on the 2014 Canyon Heroes trip.
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The 2017 Grand Canyon trip sponsored by Canyon Heroes.
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The 2017 Grand Canyon trip sponsored by Canyon Heroes.
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The 2017 Grand Canyon trip sponsored by Canyon Heroes.

A whitewater rafting trip through the Grand Canyon is good for the soul — especially troubled souls.

Since 2012, military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder have experienced the healing benefits of such a trip with the help of the Ligonier-based nonprofit Canyon Heroes .

The group has seen its state funding decrease, however, as Pennsylvania veterans have been supplanted by applicants from as far away as Texas, Oregon, Washington, Maine and California.

“What we need are Pennsylvania veterans,” said Margery Hermann, Canyon Heroes founder and acting president.

The group has received funding from the Pennsylvania Veterans’ Trust Fund , which supports services for Pennsylvania veterans, the DAV Charitable Service Trust, the ASMBA Star Foundation and other donors, she said.

Such funding often is contingent on data demonstrating the effectiveness of the organization, which is why Canyon Heroes is touting a recent survey showing the benefits of adventure-based therapy for veterans.

“Research is what we use to send to donors and foundations because that’s what they want to see,” Hermann said.

The latest survey, covering the August 2018 trip, showed that levels of depression experienced by combat veterans were reduced during the course of the seven-day trip down the Colorado River.

The survey data was collected and tabulated by Heather Uphold, a doctoral student in counselor education and supervision at Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Pittsburgh East campus. She is using the survey to write a research-based piece for her class on advocacy and leadership.

Uphold got interested in Canyon Heroes because of her husband’s own experiences as an Iraq war veteran from 2003-11. She went on the 2014 Grand Canyon trip as one of three therapists.

“The theory of adventure-based therapy has always kind of intrigued me, so why not?” she said. “Experience- and adventure-based therapy is very new … but it works with this particular population.”

Uphold of Brighton Township, formerly of Indiana, learned that for the 24 participants in the 2018 trip, the average score for severity of depression dropped by eight points during the course of the trip. Participants were given the Beck Depression Inventory, a standard test, before and after the trip.

An eight-point drop is considered significant, especially because the average depression rating fell from “severe/clinical” to “moderate,” she said.

“It dropped to the next lower scale of severity, which is pretty powerful,” Uphold said. “It could have been the environment or sharing the experience with other veterans. A lot of things contributed to that score decreasing.”

Participants also were tested for the presence and severity of PTSD and PTSD-related impairments in areas such as work, friendships, parenting, romantic relationships and self-care. Those two tests measure the long-term effects of PTSD and, thus, were not administered at the end of the trip.

Uphold said all the veterans on the 2014 trip of which she was a part showed some level of combat-related difficulties, including grief, anger, marital problems, violent behavior, suicide attempts and suicidal ideation.

The Canyon Heroes program is for military veterans who have psychological problems but who are deemed stable enough to make the trip, she said. Veterans participate in both group and individual therapy, but the setting of the Grand Canyon may be the most therapeutic thing about the experience, she said.

“The environment has a lot to do with it,” Uphold said. “There really aren’t words to describe the environment when you get down there. It’s really overwhelming at first.”

Westmoreland County Veterans Affairs Director Matt
Zamosky, a former Canyon Heroes board member, said he knows veterans who have benefited from the experience.

“It’s not a miracle cure, but it’s immersive — it takes you out of the rigors of daily life and it’s a complete departure from everything else,” Zamosky said. “The results have been wonderful.”

The key is translating those results into reliable funding from the state, he said.

Canyon Heroes currently is accepting applications for its 2019 trip.

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter @shuba_trib.

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