Butte resident Janna Sherrill says the nonprofit she co-founded in 2010 came out of a need for understanding.
Sherill is the cofounder of the Missoula-based nonprofit Xsports4vets, an organization that helps veterans find a network of support through participation in extreme sports, activities like white-water rafting, rock climbing, and sky diving.
Although not a veteran herself, the Helena native says the struggles veterans face as they reintegrate into civilian life is something that hits close to home.
In the early 2000s, Sherrill’s stepbrother arrived home after serving in the U.S. military in Iraq.
One day he confided in his sibling he was having “daymares” and symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. He promised he would seek help if his symptoms got worse. Sadly, a year and a half later, he took his own life.
Sherill said the loss of her stepbrother left her with a lot of questions.
“I was haunted by that conversation for a number of years,” she said.
Namely, Sherill wanted to know what barriers had stopped her brother and others like him from seeking support and what types of support veterans actually find helpful.
Sherill asked these questions and more in a thesis she wrote for a doctorate in occupational therapy.
“Really, kind of my goal was to rewrite that conversation. What are the barriers, what were the barriers to him getting support, and what could we as a family and as a community have done to support him differently?”
While writing her thesis, Sherill spent hours interviewing veterans and listening to their stories.
One veteran, Jesse Scollin, told Sherill that river boarding had made him want to be alive again.
And this got Sherill and Scollin thinking: what if there was an organization that could help veterans by giving them access to extreme sports?
Together Sherill and Scollin founded Xsports4vets in 2010 and since then have taken veterans on excursions that run the gamut from tricycle flying to skiing.
Veterans participate free of cost, Sherill said, adding that participants can be wounded or unwounded veterans who have deployed to an area of imminent danger.
Although Xsports4vets isn’t an organization that specializes in serving veterans suffering from mental illness, Sherill noted that some researchers have theorized that the kind of adrenaline rush associated with extreme sports can be therapeutic.
Seattle-based Brandon Stogsdill is one such researcher, who was featured in a 2013 story on NPR affiliate station KNKX. At the time, Stogsdill was examining whether indoor skydiving could have a therapeutic effect on children with mental illness.
But Sherill says Xsports4vets is more about building connections than it is about adrenaline.
The sports give veterans a chance to interact with those who share their experiences, she said, who can in turn form a supportive network.
Mental health professionals are often invited on the excursions, but they’re not there to treat veterans.
Instead, the Butte resident said, their presence is a way to break down barriers by giving veterans a chance to meet mental health professionals in a social context.
The hope, Sherill said, is that these interactions can make taking the next step of picking up a phone or walking into an office to access support that much easier.
Mark Gollinger, a veteran representative with the state’s Disabled Veteran Outreach Program, says that he supports Xsports4vets precisely because of the organization’s social component.
“It shows them that they are not alone,” said Gollinger.
What’s more, the sports often have a teamwork component, which Sherill says can offer a sense of camaraderie that veterans may have had while serving in the military but may struggle to find in civilian life.
“The thing that came up repeatedly about this program was the camaraderie,” said Sherill, reflecting on her interviews with veterans for her thesis.
After a hiatus, Sherill has recently rejoined the Xsports4vets board and says she plans on bringing more excursions to Butte – activities like rock climbing, mountain-bike riding, expedition-style hiking, tricycle flying, and cross country skiing, among others. She added that already the organization has hosted a rock climbing at The Peak in Butte and plans to support — with the help of race owner Stephanie Sorini — two veteran riders in the Butte 100 mountain bike race.
Veteran Ricky Hiatt says he’s participated in Xsports4vets a number of times, including on his first rafting excursion with the group in 2014 on the Lochsa River in Idaho.
In one photograph from the trip, Hiatt sits in a raft poised with his oar in mid-motion.
The Desert Storm veteran said that in the moment after the photo was taken, the group flipped the raft. In all, he called the river rafting experience “epic.”
Hiatt agrees: one of the best parts about his experiences with Xsports4vets was the camaraderie and the experience of shared values of “honesty, integrity, and selfless service.”
“Most veterans would give you the shirt off their back if you asked for it,” he said.