Summit County man launches adventure nonprofit for veterans struggling with mental health issues
Summit County was the place where Austin Breuninger chose to get lost after military service.
The 12-year veteran doesn’t mince words. This county — with its backcountry trails and snowmelt waterways — healed him.
If they hadn’t, Breuninger said that his life could have ended like that of three of his friends: with suicide.
“In those tough moments you do a lot of self reflection,” he said. “And my friend, he is no different. We were the same people. Did the same job. If that can happen to him, it can happen to anyone.”
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After his friend’s suicide, in the spring of 2016 Breuninger found himself pacing around the library in Breckenridge. He was there on many days reading the book “The Basics of Forming a Nonprofit for Dummies.”
With his career as an intelligence analyst working for the Department of Defense behind him, this was Breuninger’s latest mission. His goal was to form a Summit County-based nonprofit that would provide free, outdoor adventure activities for veterans, especially those experiencing mental health struggles.
In Breuninger’s mind, other organizations and nonprofits here in Summit County were already providing opportunities for physically-disabled veterans. Between the work of organizations such as the Keystone Adaptive Center and the longstanding annual The Hartford Disabled Sports USA Ski Spectacular event, Summit County has helped thousands of physically-disabled veterans use recreation as a form of rehabilitation.
But Breuninger wondered about those local veterans who are hobbled with mental scars. Though Breuninger’s dozen years of service only included 18 months of boots-on-the-ground deployment in areas of conflict, he still carries with him the harrowing memories of warfare.
That’s why this winter Breuninger — who now works as a fire inspector for the Red, White and Blue Fire Protection District in Breckenridge — officially launched his nonprofit High Country Veteran’s Adventures.
In just a few months, the group has hosted a handful of splitboarding, hiking and stand-up paddleboard events for former military members. With a focus on creating a positive outlet and community for military members who may be struggling with depression, Breuninger has his sights set on one free adventure event per month.
“We are not a mental health provider,” Breuninger said. “What we are is a peer-support network. When you separate from the service, you lose a lot of the connection to the overall mission. You don’t have a mission anymore. You don’t have your folks in your unit. You lose that camaraderie. That’s why we are introducing these outdoor activities that require planning. Just like the military, you have to plan it out. It’s reminiscent of a military-style mission.”
The native Kansan’s story of finding Summit County as his home centers on finding a wild place full of adventure. And with that, he said, Summit’s beauty and terrain act as a respite from grim military memories.
Many years before finding his way here, though, Breuninger, in March of 2003, entered the Kansas Air National guard at the age of 18. At the time the U.S. Department of Defense was searching for candidates for their planned surge in fields related to military intelligence. Not soon after the former high school wrestler, soccer player and lifelong hunter fell in love with the challenge and satisfaction of intelligence work.
His dozen years of service evolved from raw information analysis in removed rooms to in-the-field operations. And whether he was flying Predator drones in the Middle East from a remote location in Arizona or testing the U.S.’s own military vulnerabilities while replicating an enemy foreign intelligence service, everything Breuninger did revolved around protecting the country in the global war on terrorism.
“It was the coolest job in the world,” Breuninger said.
But then a regular gig had to follow. And it wasn’t easy on Breuninger’s psyche and mental health.
That’s a transition many military members wrestle with in the wake of their service. It’s a reality that leads to mental health struggles for former military members seeking the same adrenaline rush and importance in their new non-military job.
After a few less exciting job, Breuninger began working for Red, White and Blue in August of 2016. He only ended up here after a friend living in Silverthorne, Brock Johnson — whom had helped with Breuninger’s own mental health struggles, and now serves on HCVA’s board— requested help with depression in the spring of 2015.
Just a year later Breuninger was still here, putting the wheels in motion to launch the nonprofit. It wasn’t easy. Breuninger was shocked when local land-use officials told him twice that he had “no shot” of getting a permit for his commercial operation.
Yet Breuninger was adamant that his operation wasn’t at all commercial and that all he needed from them was access to a few locations. Then this past winter, the White River National Forest granted him permission to use four trails for his veteran’s adventures: Baldy Mountain, Acorn Creek, Rock Creek Road and Mesa Cortina.
The turnout has been modest for HCVA events , which include backcountry splitboarding up Baldy and stand-up paddleboarding on Lake Dillon. In fact, for the June SUP event out of Dillon Marina, only one veteran showed up.
Even if it’s just one former service member they’ve helped, Breuninger knows that may equate to one veteran saved from suicide.
“He was a Vietnam War veteran double my age, in his 60s, easy,” Breuninger said. “But our motto right now is ‘just get here.’ If you get here, the event is free. Introducing these outdoor adventures, it provides that challenge, that sense of accomplishment — that reason to get up off the couch.”
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