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Vets support mental health with disc golf in Missoula

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A small group of veterans gathered at the Blue Mountain Disc Course on Saturday to have some socially distanced bonding time and throw around some discs. 

“We find that breaking isolation is a really important factor to veterans’ mental health,” said Anton Johnson, an army veteran and the Vet Center’s outreach program specialist who helped organize the event.

Disc golf is one of several outdoor programs the Vet Center, a branch of Veteran Affairs, has partnered with the nonprofit Xsports4vets, extreme sports for veterans, to make activities accessible and at no cost to veterans in western Montana. Other sports they do include rock climbing, river boarding and skydiving. Johnson said they’re always open to suggestions for activities. 

From hole to hole, the four men kept up an easy banter and encouraged one another. They trekked through tall trees and up and down hills, surrounded by the beauty of Montana’s outdoors. A couple of holes in, participant Arthur Sykes threw his disc in a smooth arc through the air.

“That was beautiful,” Johnson told him.

“I shot number two into this tree, though,” Sykes said, gesturing with another disc at the tree in front of him. “Damn integrity.”

Sykes said disc golf is something he could do any day of the week. “But it’s the camaraderie we get among the veterans we don’t get to experience the other six days of the week.”

He said veterans have a unique understanding among one another. They can throw around military jargon, and they know that a stoic look doesn’t equate unhappiness.

“There’s still pleasure behind the stone face,” Sykes said. 

Sykes said he’s participated in whitewater rafting and river boarding with the vet group, and also did a firefighter and veteran joint ski trip once. He’s enjoyed finding connections with both other veterans and the first responders he met skiing.

Johnson said sports are a great way to connect veterans and watch out for their mental health because having something to do outside of a clinical setting can break down barriers. Veterans are more at risk for suicide, and so Johnson said it’s important for them to not isolate.

“They can support each other and hopefully help each other through times of need,” Johnson said.

Extreme sports are an especially great activity for veterans who crave the adrenaline rush they used to get in the military, Johnson said. Xsports4vets provides a safe and controlled environment to experience the adrenaline rush again.

Johnson is the one who suggested disc golf as an activity. It doesn’t provide the same adrenaline rush as something like skydiving, but it still gets them outside doing something active. He’s been disc golfing on his own for years and has a bag full of discs to share with anyone who needs them.

“For me it was a chance to share with other veterans what I find to be relaxing, and it’s a mix of exercise, hiking around the hills, as well as getting to connect with one another,” Johnson said.

His favorite extreme sport, though, is river boarding. River boarders lie on giant boogie boards with a wetsuit, flippers, a helmet and a life vest, and they boogie board down whitewater rapids. They’ll start taking people river boarding soon. Other possible upcoming summer actives are gold panning and sky diving.

Xsports4vets and the Vet Center had to cancel some of their events for the summer because of COVID-19, especially earlier in the summer when guidelines were stricter. 

They had to postpone the Veteran Suicide Awareness and Prevention (VSAP) Half Marathon set for May until September, but Johnson isn’t sure it will happen then either. The event is walk, run or ruck, which means running with a 20-pound weight to honor the 20 or more veterans lost each day to suicide. Hundreds of people come to the event each year, but if COVID-19 numbers don’t get better they might have to cancel the event and hold an appreciation day instead.

For now, Johnson plans to keep hosting outdoor events and engaging veterans in positive, socially distant ways.

“We’re excited to still be able to get out and do stuff since we live in an amazing place, (and) we have the outdoors to take advantage of,” Johnson said. “And we’re going to continue to try and engage the veterans the best we can during the changing times.”

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