Decades of research show that the full-circle experience of hunting has legitimate positive effects on veterans struggling with mental health issues.
Dr. Keith Tidball, of Cornell University's Department of Natural Resources, believes hunting amplifies the benefits because it taps into a core element of humanity. Much of Tidball’s research has been conducted on-site while participating in organized veterans hunting events through the Wounded Warriors in Action Foundation Inc.(WWIA), which Tidball serves as a science advisor.
Throughout the year in communities across the country, WWIA organizes outdoor sporting experiences for Purple Heart recipients to recognize and honor their sacrifice to the nation and promote healing and wellness through camaraderie and a shared passion for the outdoors. These trips include hunting, fishing, skill-building, and other activities.
Retired Lieutenant Colonel John J. McDaniel merged his passion for helping combat-wounded servicemen and women with his passion for hunting and fishing. He knew firsthand how those sports had helped him cope and adjust to life after military service, and he wanted to continue helping his fellow warriors. Once he started taking veterans out on hunting and fishing trips, he quickly realized that the need for this kind of healing was greater than he could support on his own, so he formed WWIA.
The sole focus of WWIA is to support the men and women wounded in combat who were awarded the Purple Heart Medal. WWIA serves all Purple Heart recipients, regardless of the era of conflict, by providing them with the opportunity to participate in world-class outdoor sporting activities that assist in their recovery efforts. WWIA is not affiliated with the Wounded Warrior Project or any other wounded warrior organization.
In his career, Tidball has studied the therapeutic benefits of hunting and fishing on veterans. As a veteran himself, hunting and fishing were his lifeline after being injured during service. His research had shown a direct correlation between outdoor experiences, including hunting and fishing, and a reduction in suicidal thoughts in veterans. Tidball collects data via a pre and post-test that evaluates the mental health and suicidal ideations of the veterans. The results show that overwhelmingly, these activities help boost mental well-being.
“I get caught up with my day-to-day hustle,” US Army Purple Heart Recipient J. Hardy said. “I try to juggle being the best husband, the best father, a good son, and a hard-working employee. I know I struggle with all of that as well as keeping the demons in my head from taking over. You tend to forget how fragile the balance is, but you are always one trigger away from losing it all. This weekend was the reset I was craving. I needed to talk with other men that fight the same fight. I needed some time to relax and be worry free.”
It is not uncommon for a participant to come out on the other side of one of these excursions and declare that the trip had rejuvenated, refreshed, or even saved their life.
“The individuals that go on these trips express major positive gains in all of the areas that you want to see gains in terms of protective factors against suicide,” Tidball said. “The therapeutic value of these ancient rituals of ours called hunting and angling, are deeply connected to our health and well-being. People aren’t aware of that and I’m trying to document that and make people aware of it.”
While the benefits of simple recreation in the outdoors for veterans are well documented, many studies have focused on non-consumptive activities such as hiking, kayaking, etc., Tidball’s research has dug into how hunting benefits veterans, which he believes offers a more immersive experience. There is a reason for this, which he sums up in what he has dubbed the Hunting Hoop.
Veterans damaged physically, emotionally, and mentally in service can find healing by moving through a natural process of procuring an animal and then preparing it for consumption. This cycle connects to ancestral core rituals of community and sustenance and therefore has grounding and healing elements.
The stages of the process include search, stalk, kill, butcher, cook, eat, and reflect. These seven steps are organized into phases of the hunt, including purification/justification, encounter, culmination, and transformation.
The Hunting Hoop’s four phases and seven elements depict the interrelated and deeply significant processes by which the experience of hunting, especially with a group of peers, addresses isolation, disconnection, and dissociation among veterans.
The cycle of hunting, processing, and consuming self-procured wild meat allows the participants to tap into the primal hunter experience, that for eons, has been a part of human culture.
Tidball conducted interviews of combat-wounded veterans in seven different sites across North America, from Alaska to Maine, and from near the Canadian Border (in Wisconsin and upstate New York) to Florida, and the results were strikingly consistent: participating in organized group hunting events was positively beneficial to mental health.
“As I have written about, what I love about hunting among all of the other outdoor recreation possibilities, is that, especially for veterans, the opportunity for the veteran participant on a WWIA trip to experience the full cycle of the hunter/warrior experience, the ‘sacred hoop,’ is readily available,” Tidball said. “This experience, this evolution, in my mind, is what makes it therapeutic, the ‘secret sauce’ if you will.”