Home / Articles / Features

Treating war trauma with nature

Image of the September 2023 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
September 2023 Issue

An ex-SAS soldier is helping other veterans deal with post-traumatic stress by taking them sea kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park

Imagining anything like a war zone in Anchorage, or any bay in Abel Tasman National Park, is a stretch. The place is peace personified; surrounded by native forest and shimmering sea, reached by foot or boat. It’s where toes can be curled into golden sand and weka can be seen pecking along the high tide line.

“It’s just so beautiful that you are almost forced to be aware,” says former New Zealand Special Air Service (SAS) corporal Gregg Johnson. “Everywhere you look there’s something spectacular.”

Johnson knows about this area. After a 20-year military career, he retrained in adventure tourism and began an internship at Abel Tasman Kayaks in 2016.

Not long into his new gig, he took an Australian couple on a kayaking trip. The husband had been a firefighter for 30 years, and one of the stories he shared with Johnson was attending an incident where a car with five children went into the water and the children died.

The incident knocked him around and he had great trouble coming to terms with it. Johnson says, “We were sleeping out in the bush and by 8am he hadn’t got up. I said to his wife, ‘Where’s your husband?’ She said, ‘He hasn’t slept like this in 20 years’.”

It’s one of Johnson’s light-bulb moments. He first heard about the benefits of nature on post-traumatic stress (PTS) when he was a security contractor in Iraq from 2003 to 2006, and he’s been following the research ever since.

“Nature’s always been my safe place,” he says. “It’s where I get to connect and put my feet on the ground and just be. I don’t have PTS and I feel that’s a big part of why not.”

These days Johnson is a facilitator for Pakari Adventure Programme, a recent offshoot of Abel Tasman Kayaks. The programme is used by the New Zealand Army, so Johnson puts into practice what he’s learned about nature and PTS over several years to help build resilience in current soldiers.

But it’s his voluntary work to help former soldiers heal from their time in service that has brought me to Anchorage, where three veterans and their families are set up in tents for a long weekend of kayaking, beachcombing and campfires.

Johnson says if a veteran is hurting, so, normally, is their family. The trip provides some respite from this and a chance to work on relationships that may have suffered while the soldier was serving away from home.

On the project team is Ben Pointer, an ex-elite British soldier who retrained as a counsellor after some dark days with PTS when he left the military. Johnson’s partner, Nicole Walker, is also on board. She was with police forensics for 11 years before a career in women’s health.

Johnson says women face particular problems in male-dominated military environments, including sexual harassment. His plan is to run some programmes exclusively for female veterans.

The Pakari Adventure Programme project team are Gregg Johnson, Nicole Walker and Ben Pointer

The trio held their first veteran get-together last October. It was for former SAS soldiers who served in Afghanistan more than a decade ago. For Aaron Shepherd, 51, from Hamilton, it was his first visit to Abel Tasman National Park and he didn’t know what to expect.

“It felt like The Truman Show, where everything was on request,” Shepherd says. “Like, cue the weka and they’d turn up, then cue the dolphins and a whole pod of dolphins would go floating by … it was bloody wicked.”

Shepherd left the Defence Force in 2012 and now works as a crane safety trainer. The father-of-four and grandfather-of-two says he hasn’t spent a lot of time in nature since leaving the military because, as a soldier, the outdoors is where you get put to the test.

“When we started sea kayaking, I was thinking, ‘Oh, if we’re going to paddle like this for the whole day I’m going to be stuffed’.” But there was relief all round, he says, when the group arrived at Anchorage just a few hours from Mārahau. In this way, the trip was a lesson in enjoying rather than enduring nature, and Shepherd is keen to do it again, this time with his wife.

Equally important was the chance to reconnect with old military mates. “We very rarely catch up,” Shepherd says. “But when we do it’s really good – that bond you have and that banter you give each other that only you can understand because you worked together.” It’s hard to have the same conversations once you’ve left the military “because what you’ve seen and done is normal to you, a civilian just doesn’t quite get it”.

More than 60,500 Kiwi troops have become veterans since 1990, according to the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services Association (RSA). Some were in Afghanistan and Iraq, among the deadliest war zones of the 21st century, yet they don’t always feel valued.

Ex-SAS member Gregg Johnson is helping military personnel recover from the stress of deployment by taking them paddling in Abel Tasman

“Our more recent veterans of operational deployments come home with little fanfare, and return to a country that has no real understanding of what they’ve been part of,” said RSA national president Sir Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford, ahead of this year’s Poppy Day street appeal.

Johnson’s crew is seeking funding from the RSA. The trio’s programmes have so far relied on the goodwill of Abel Tasman Kayaks and participants paying for themselves. Johnson says the standard price per person is about $300 a day, including gear hire and food. The trips span three to five days.

In the meantime, they’ve teamed up with veterans’ charity Pilgrim Bandits New Zealand as they look to provide grants to those for whom cost may be a barrier.

Johnson says cutting ties with the military can strip a person of their purpose, sense of belonging and identity. He says similar can occur with professional sportspeople when their playing days are over. “It’s in the news all the time now – this guy’s doing cocaine and this guy’s doing this and this veteran’s living on the street – because we’re not educated on these things.”

Also, veterans may have physical and mental injuries from their service time, and, as Shepherd mentioned, they can struggle to discuss their military experiences openly in the civilian world.

Says Johnson: “Until we met, a friend of mine hadn’t talked about his service in 10 years – to anyone. He’s got all these stories and memories, and he suffered incredibly with PTS. But now we have a healthy relationship where we get to share stories and laugh and cry and do whatever we need to do, but we feel safe. That’s the biggest thing with any trauma – we need to feel safe so we can share it – and that’s what we’re seeing with our trips. Nature just works her magic and we watch.”

There’s science involved too. The amygdala is a small structure in the brain that helps you detect danger and activates the fight-or-flight response. “The biggest thing we’re seeing with PTS and some of the other mental injuries our veterans are dealing with is the amygdala is constantly turned on,” Johnson says. “They’ve done a lot of brain scanning in the US and you see the amygdala quieten down when veterans get out in nature.” The rhythmic quality of kayaking has also been shown to soothe the amygdala, he says.

US veterans can go on two Outward Bound courses for free in an initiative that was first set up for those returning from the Vietnam War. It’s funded by donations, something Johnson wants to work on in New Zealand. “We’re not reinventing the wheel,” he says. “We’re just taking the American literature, what they’re doing, where they’re going. We’ve got an amazing opportunity in this beautiful country to do that – let’s do it.”