Parks Conservancy Partnership Heals Veterans: Interview with a W.A.R.I.O.R. Participant
Partnering with the Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center (PRRC) at the San Francisco VA Medical Center, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy has been facilitating guided park excursions for veterans.
Started just last year, the W.A.R.I.O.R. (Wellness and Recovery Incorporating Outdoor Recreation) program has brought dozens of vets to Muir Beach, Mori Point, Alcatraz, and the Marin Headlands.
Bobby Alexander, a veteran who served in the Navy during the 1970s and ’80s, is now an enthusiastic participant in W.A.R.I.O.R. trips. He shared his story with us—and how the program is helping him on the road of recovery.
In addition to sailing on the USS Samuel Gompers, New Jersey, Missouri, and Enterprise, you were also a member of the “River Rat” crew. What did that entail?
Our primary mission was to seek out and find the enemy—how strong he was, what he had, was he entrenched, where was he—and then we’d go back, working with the [Army] Rangers, the Marines, the [Navy] SEAL teams. We’d come back and replace them with firepower, and after their objective was obtained we’d go back and pick them up. Our other main line was to recover downed pilots.
How did you come to participate in PRRC programs?
I was going through a really tough time. I was also having some problems...not feeling well. So I went to the doctor at the VA and told him to run some checks. Come to find out, I had acquired a cancer I didn’t know I had. When they caught it, it was a Level 5. The VA’s been helping me since then till now; they diagnosed me with PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder], bipolar [disorder].
What has it been like, going on these excursions with other vets?
I’ve met vets from different branches. On these excursions that we go on, I’ve gotten to know a lot of people that I normally wouldn’t have ever met. They have the same problems—or worse problems—[compared to] myself. The whole program…you guys make us feel a little less like “that person nobody wants to talk to.” We feel more like a person.
The people from the parks and the national parks—you guys are great. I would’ve never thought to go to beaches and look at flowers. The only beaches I was on were hostile.
How has being in the parks helped you in your recovery?
You can’t ask for better! [gestures to vista of Golden Gate] The fresh air, getting out in the sun...it’s so wide open. It’s different from being cooped up in a classroom—I’ll be like a cat in a box, you put me in there!
Being out here in nature, and being out and about...there are times you can break away and just sit and relax, which is kinda hard to do in these days and times. I love it. I think a lot of other vets would love it too.
You had a particularly memorable experience during your Alcatraz trip. Can you share that with us?
We kinda walked into a booby trap! They took us over there, and then on the way back they had all the vets get off the boat at one time. And they had thousands of people out there on the pier, waiting to get on. And as we got off, all of a sudden, all these people started clapping.
We’re looking around like, “Are we missing something? What’s going on?” And then over the loudspeaker they said that was for us—they were clapping for the vets. That day was the [anniversary] of the end of the Vietnam War.
To support Parks Conservancy programs that connect veterans with life-changing experiences in their parks, contact Traci Eckels at firstname.lastname@example.org or (415) 561-3035.
This interview originally appeared as a “Five Questions” feature in the Fall 2017 issue of Gateways, the quarterly newsletter for members of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. To become a member and support Conservancy programs and projects, visit parksconservancy.org/join.