High Country Veterans Adventures fosters community for veterans through therapy in the outdoors
For many military veterans transitioning back to civilian life, the path can be full of struggles. Besides scary episodes brought on by post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, veterans can often feel isolated in a world that looks very different from the one they were used to while serving.
Austin Breuninger, after 12 years of service, sought to solve this common problem for veterans by raising their overall quality of life through outdoor adventures and physical activity. This led Breuninger to start the Summit County-based nonprofit High Country Veterans Adventures in April of 2016 in order to serve local and nearby veterans.
Shortly after getting the organization going, Breuninger started not only organizing excursions but also accruing passionate volunteers who also once served in the military.
Among the volunteers were Tony Bonanno and Naiomi Schware, both of whom have been with Breuninger and the nonprofit basically since its inception.
Bonanno became involved with the group after attending an outdoor trip with the nonprofit. The group took him on a backcountry skiing trip where he was blown away by both the beauty he was introduced to and the community the organization provided.
The trip inspired Bonanno so much that he worked to gain the required education needed in order to become an outdoor guide. After receiving his certifications, Bonanno began giving back to local veterans through his own guided trips via High Country Veterans Adventures.
For Bonanno and those involved with High Country Veterans Adventures, either as a volunteer or as a guest, the outdoors provide a form of therapy that is hard to come by elsewhere.
High Country Veterans Adventures takes it a step further by not only providing outdoor therapy but by also providing a community made possible by veteran guides assisting veterans.
Breuninger’s goal when he started the outreach with High Country Veterans Adventures was to breed a community of veterans that is nurtured through the outdoors to the point that the veterans feel safe enough to go out on their own excursions with the connections they have made through the outdoor trip.
“There are several studies showing that just going for a walk in the woods with people you are comfortable around can help depression and anger issues,” Bonanno said.
Bonanno himself had trouble transitioning back to civilian life after serving for the United States Coast Guard. The outdoors provided him with one of his only forms of normalcy and community.
According to Bonanno, one of the first steps the volunteers at High Country Veterans Adventures take when out on an excursion with a group of veterans is ensuring that the veterans are still very much in a comfortable state of mind.
“When they are in their comfort zone they start talking to you about things they may not talk about with everybody else,” Bonanno said. “Some people don’t really talk to their spouses or children because they feel so uncomfortable.”
High County Veterans Adventures usually hosts one to two excursions in a given month with an overnight trip at the end of every season. The nonprofit has hosted basically every type of outdoor adventure including backcountry skiing, split board, cross-country skiing, hiking, stand-up paddleboarding, and overnight backcountry hut trips.
Schware, who met Breuninger through some friends while living in a tent in the backcountry after serving in the military, says she was immediately drawn to Breuninger because of their shared perspective on the benefits of the wilderness for veterans.
One of the earliest memories Schware has of helping out with High Country Veterans Adventures occurred when Breuninger explained his true mission for the nonprofit.
“I remember a distinct conversation that Austin and I had at a trailhead very early on and he looked at me and said, ‘You know what Naiomi, if HCVA helps one veteran in any kind of way then we have done our job,’” she said. “I think a lot of veteran organizations get away from that and are so intent on publicity and social media.”
Schware feels like High Country Veterans Adventures has had the same mission from day one and the organization has never worried about money but rather solely focuses on helping one veteran at a time.
Schware has readily seen High Country Veterans Adventures work throughout the years from helping veterans at a low point to creating lifelong friendships.
The organization has plans to add even more activities in the coming seasons but one of the issues the nonprofit has run into as of late is the availability of volunteers.
As of now, all High Country Veterans Adventures guides and other volunteers are not paid anything for orchestrating trips and ultimately attempting to make a difference in the life of a veteran.
The worry is that with the cost of living and inflation continuing to rise in Summit and nearby counties volunteers won’t be able to volunteer their time to High Country Veterans Adventures despite many veterans in the area needing the services the organization provides.
“We have had to turn people away from trips because there are not enough volunteers,” Bonanno said.
Schware argues there is a middle balance that must be struck in order to ensure High Country Veterans Adventures has the resources to continue to do its work.
“(The organization) does not need to be making millions but it does need enough funding to sustain the outreach,” Schware said. “(It) is able to run really well with minimal funding compared to the national average of nonprofit funding. We don’t need a lot of it but everything helps.”
Every dollar of funding that High Country Veterans Adventures does receive is put directly into the program and ensures the organization can continue to provide a service that has readily helped veterans in need.
To give, find out more, or sign up for a veteran trip with High Country Veterans Adventures visit HCVACo.org.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
As a Summit Daily News reader, you make our work possible.
Now more than ever, your financial support is critical to help us keep our communities informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having on our residents and businesses. Every contribution, no matter the size, will make a difference.
Your donation will be used exclusively to support quality, local journalism.