SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. — For many veterans, physical obstacles are something they take head-on with pride, but it's the silent obstacles that can be the hardest to overcome.
Austin Breuninger is the reason a group of veterans gathered together on a Friday morning at a Colorado trailhead. He started High Country Veterans Adventures after experiencing the tragedy of losing friends to suicide.
"We like to surround ourselves with other veterans so we can have that kind of instant rapport. We can share things with ourselves that we may not feel comfortable sharing with other people," he said.
Studies have shown that the more time people diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder spend in the outdoors, the more they see a reduction in their PTSD symptoms.
A recent study by Penn State shows that now 50% of people in America participate in outdoor activities a 20% increase from pre-pandemic times. While this means more people are getting more mental health benefits, crowded parks and expensive equipment can mean more barriers for people like veterans or others with PTSD exist.
"We've essentially removed the obstacles that prevent a veteran from coming out and enjoying these events," said Breuninger.
His group moves some of those barriers by lending equipment and providing avalanche training, so veterans can access the pure wilderness of America's backcountry safely.
Veteran Zach Whitmore found the group serendipitously a few years ago and says the ability to get outside with few barriers has been life-changing.
"I can't picture my life in any other way other than being in the mountains and being out in the wild with my friends," said Whitmore.
Connection through nature may be harder to find these days, but these veterans say through proper knowledge and finding a group to show you the way, the outdoors can remain to be one of the greatest healers available.
"At the end of the day, we just want everybody to get up the mountain, finish the objective and get down safely and it brings us together," he said.