During September, David Gray, of Warner, spent countless hours in the North Country, tucked into a tree stand beside his fellow veterans, both men and women. Gray is the New Hampshire lead for The Fallen Outdoors, a nonprofit that provides outdoor activities for veterans and active-duty military. He was bear hunting with the veterans, but also serving a much bigger purpose.
“We [military and veterans] don’t talk to you face to face, but we can sit next to each other with a fishing pole or shoes and we’ll spill our guts as long as we don’t have to go eyeball to eyeball,” Gray said.
In that way, a bear hunt — or one of the other outdoor activities offered by The Fallen Outdoors, ranging from kayaking to snowshoeing — becomes so much more.
“The purpose is to combat the high suicide rate among vets and active duty members,” Gray said.
Although The Fallen Outdoors is active in roughly 40 states, the New Hampshire chapter is new. Gray established it in 2018 and has been slowly building its presence. In 2020, he hoped to double the number of veterans that he took on adventures, which are hosted free-of-charge.
Then, the pandemic shut everything down, and Gray’s entire operation was affected; he wasn’t able to fundraise or even build awareness about the organization. He wasn’t eligible for state or federal grants, he said.
“As a new non-profit, we can’t get the funding that more established nonprofits can get.”
At the same time, Gray became convinced that the need for The Fallen Outdoors was greater than ever.
“The suicide rates since COVID have gone through the roof,” Gray said. Active-duty military are essentially on lock-down, while veterans are left isolated and at home to grapple with traumas from their service.
“This is the absolute worst thing to do to our vets. Your mind wanders to places that you might have healed, and opens that up again.”
It’s something he understands well as a Marine Corps veteran. During his service he spent months on a Coast Guard cutter in the Caribbean. One day the ship pulled beside a sailboat filled with migrants. Before the Coast Guard could intervene, the sailboat flipped and sank.
“We had migrants in the water and sharks everywhere,” Gray said. “We spent days picking up — I hate to say it, and civilians don’t like to hear it — remnants.”
Oftentimes, there’s a misunderstanding that only military who have been in combat experience trauma, but that’s not the case, Gray said. The problem is much more wide-spread.
“It doesn’t take combat for people to see things that they live with for the rest of their lives,” he said.
Recently, Gray got a message from a veteran who had come on the September bear hunt: “I’m slipping away.” Gray was able to connect the veteran with mental-health services, and offer peer support.
Still, he’s worried about what the winter months will bring for the veteran community and The Fallen Outdoors. New Hampshire’s dark and cold winters can have an impact on mental well-being during the best of circumstances, and the pandemic is just going to add to isolation this year.
“It’s going to be bad,” Gray said. “This year is going to be tough.”
He’s working to plan adventures that can get veterans outdoors during the colder months, without putting them at risk for COVID.
“We’re trying to find alternate means,” Gray said.
Anyone who would like more information on joining an adventure with The Fallen Outdoors or who knows of a veteran or active-duty military member in need can contact Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-973-4661 or join their East Coast Facebook page here.
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