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Homeward for Heroes: Healing together in peace of the great outdoors

by WHITNEY ENGLAND
Whitefish Pilot | June 29, 2022 1:00 AM

Relaxing around the campfire in the company of good friends — it’s a quintessential summer pastime for many.

It’s also one of the most effective ways the nonprofit Homeward for Heroes has found to help veterans, first responders and their families move forward after experiencing traumatic events or deployment. Being in the outdoors, disconnecting from the material world and making connections with people who once were strangers are all strategies the nonprofit implements in their events to help heroes heal and move forward in life.

Homeward for Heroes was started in the Flathead Valley in 2015 and became a 501c3 nonprofit three years later. Dan and Laura Reese are the founders of the organization and since have brought on staff such as Mason Jacobson who leads the Montana chapter.

Homeward for Heroes is veteran-run for veterans and frontline workers. Dan is a 20-year veteran, serving eight years in the U.S. Marines, four years active U.S. Army and eight years in the Montana National Guard. Within his service, he deployed multiple times, most recently in 2012 for the last of several deployments to Afghanistan.

After returning from deployment, Dan says Laura helped him to open up and talk about what he experienced — especially in the outdoors around the campfire. However, he knew many friends who struggled with post-traumatic stress and depression, and many that committed suicide.

“I was wondering what was the difference between them and I; you know why did they struggle and I didn’t,” Dan recalled.

After continually thinking about his situation versus others, Dan and Laura realized a huge help was the time they spent camping or doing outdoor activities together that led them to reconnect and be able to heal.

Those strategies that worked for the Reeses are the same principles that they implement when hosting treks, meet-and-greets and other events with Homeward for Heroes. And they witness an undeniable difference in the veterans that attend as well as the volunteers and staff throughout each event — especially the seven to 10-day treks.

“Oh it’s huge,” Dan said of the effect the events have on everyone involved. “We even see in our volunteers that show up that are non-veterans and just the changes in their lives of sharing around the campfire of some sort of hardship or traumatic experience; just connecting with other people and their experiences.”

THE ORGANIZATION strives to host at least one meet-and-greet each month. These events are either one day or over a weekend where staff and volunteers will post up at a designated spot and people are welcome to stop by. It serves as a way to connect with others without a full commitment to a trek. In May, Homeward for Heroes hosted one of these events at Hubbart Reservoir where they camped for the weekend.

The overland treks are the organization’s most popular activities. Homeward for Heroes hosts smaller discovery treks as they can throughout the year and in different locations across the country, but the Montana Old West Trek is the flagship event.

This seven to 10-day trek fills up within days and has grown over the years after starting with about five cars and 10 people in 2015 to now with this year’s event expected to host 30 people. The Old West Trek involves a planned road trip across various parts of Montana and combines more unique activities with classic Montana experiences. The Homeward for Heroes staff leads participants in team-building activities as well as exercises that promote healing.

“Our motto is ‘Disconnect to Reconnect,’” Laura says. “So we find that we’ll literally take them out into places where they don’t have cell phone coverage on purpose because that way they can focus 100% on the trek and really get the most out of it.”

ALTHOUGH THE Reeses and their staff are not trained doctors or psychologists, they simply use their own experience of healing in the outdoors to help veterans let go of some demons and begin connecting with people in similar situations. Through this, they form a bond and have people to lean on.

And it’s all done outdoors because Dan and Laura found that environment to help with feeling comfortable and safe.

“Especially with PTSD, just doing outdoor activities allows them to be a lot more calm and more open versus sitting around in a sterile environment and trying to talk to a doctor that can’t relate,” Dan said.

Although several other veteran programs take different approaches, one might work better for another.

“There’s a lot of things out there, it’s just a matter of finding where you connect,” Dan added. “For me, that’s where I connected.”

The Reeses say Homeward for Heroes makes sure to follow up with all the families and veterans they meet — checking in on them afterward is one of the most important parts of the job. The connections they make during the treks are ones that last and can save lives.

“What’s really cool is they stay in touch with these other people that they met. Literally, when one person is having a bad day they call the other person and vice versa. It’s really helped them feel like they’re part of an extended family and that’s what we try to build,” Laura said.

Laura added that Homeward for Heroes is not just for the veteran or first responder, it is equally important for the spouse or partner. Laura offers support to them by using her own experience as a military spouse who was home raising the kids on her own when Dan was deployed.

“There are so many organizations out there that help the veterans, but don’t help the spouses…” she said. “There’s always that divorce rate or communication, or lack thereof, that happens when one or the other gets back, so we work on that too.”

GOING FORWARD the Reeses hope to continue to build Homeward for Heroes. They see the impact the treks and meetups have on those attending and know that veterans all over the country need similar support.

Dan and Laura travel full-time while spending most of the summer back home in the Flathead to help Jacobson run the Montana chapter and host the Old West Trek in July. The rest of the year the Reeses travel to scout new trek locations, meet with other veteran organizations and make new connections all over the country.

They hope to expand Homeward for Heroes into more areas and form new chapters. Expansion of the nonprofit is a focus for the Reeses now because the demand for their treks is huge, but also because they will have more opportunities to impact lives.

“Our first [goal] is to help as many of our heroes as possible,” Dan said.

The 2022 Old West Trek will start in Missoula and wind through ghost towns, old mines and caverns from July 16-23. The trek is full for this year but Homeward for Heroes hosts several events and treks every year.

For more information visit www.homewardforheroes.org.

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Mason Jacobson is the Montana chapter leader of Homeward for Heroes, a veterans group that helps vets deal with post-traumatic stress and connect with people in similar situations. (JP Edge photo)

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Glen Singleton, Les Aasheim, Bill (Cowboy) Miles and Mason Jacobson talk around the campfire at Hubbart Reservoir on May 14, 2022. (JP Edge photo)

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Glen Singleton prepares dinner for a group of Homeward for Heroes campers at Hubbart Reservoir on May 14, 2022. (JP Edge photo)

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Sequoia Sandvich and Bill (Cowboy) Miles celebrate her fifth birthday with Homeward for Heroes at Hubbart Reservoir on May 14, 2022. (JP Edge photo)

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