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‘I truly believe it’s a way to heal these veterans’

As an Army specialist in Iraq, Troy Yocum never had an incident while carrying out convoy escort missions and delivering supplies. He never had the opportunity to be a hero.

But his actions after the war led the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation to recently designate him one for his work in preventing veteran suicides.

Yocum, 35, first garnered attention in 2010 when he walked across the United States to raise money to help veterans and their families. The journey spanned 7,800 miles, 37 states and 17 months. Hike for Heroes raised $1.3 million, which was distributed to help pay the bills of 1,800 military families, many of whom were about to have their homes foreclosed on, he said.

“Every step I took meant it would support veterans and their families,” he said. “It mostly centered around a lot of my (veteran) friends not being able to find good jobs to take care of their families and then getting behind. Luckily for me, just the hike across America raised so much awareness and funds for that cause that I felt like that was my reward.”

But just like that, the money was gone, and there were more struggling military veterans. Yocum couldn’t keeping hiking across America.

“I see so many Vietnam, Korean, World War II veterans who are wounded or disabled that are not necessarily tended to as much as the younger wounded veterans,” he said. “So we wanted to make sure that the new post-9/11 wounded veterans were going to be helped years and years and years down the road.”

Hike for Heroes evolved into Active Heroes, a nonprofit dedicated to helping struggling veterans through an all-encompassing approach: endowment funds for some wounded veterans, team-building through physical fitness, community outreach, home repairs and a healing program.

For his work with through the charity, Yocum was awarded the Citizen Honors Awards in March by Medal of Honor recipients. The war heroes give the honor based on nominations of civilians as they look for characteristics embodied by the Medal of Honor — selfless service, patriotism, courage and integrity.

“Any work that anybody’s doing that helps these returning veterans adjust to the realities of life after they’ve been in combat, and in many cases, repeatedly over the last several years, is worth doing,” said Ronald T. Rand, president and CEO of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation.

“Troy’s is self-initiated. He’s gotten a good ratio of the money going into the cause rather than overhead. And Troy has lived what these people have been through. So who better to say they need help and who better to help them than someone who’s been in their shoes?”

Yocum’s grandfather, Joseph Leake, joined the Army during World War II. He returned home and suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress. Leake found work in a factory, but when it shut down, he took his own life.

After Yocum served in Iraq and came home to a struggling economy, he realized many of his friends were going through the same things his grandfather faced. A close battle buddy of his took his own life.

“Too many times I see veterans commit suicide because they think there’s no way out,” Yocum said. “That’s simply not true.”

Active Heroes is now working to build a 144-acre retreat and healing center for veterans and their families in Shepherdsville, Ky. About 35 minutes from Fort Knox, Tenn., the retreat could service about 90,000 veterans within a 110-mile radius, the group said.

Active Heroes has raised $200,000 of the projected $4 million needed for the project, but the land is already being used for recreational activities such as camping. Yocum envisions the retreat providing seminars on budgeting and conflict management, as well as offering a peaceful environment.

“It’s going to be programs like this that show the appreciation to the veterans and their families but also give them a comforting place to heal,” Yocum said. “I truly believe it’s a way to heal these veterans in a non-clinical setting.”

It’s part of the organization’s effort to move away from the military’s conventional methods of treating PTSD and depression by providing alternative therapy to help veterans get outdoors and build camaraderie with other veterans.

In general, veterans who use outdoors recreation as therapy — when prescribed by a doctor — are more relaxed, said Larry Long, director of the Veterans Health Administration’s Recreation Therapy Program, which is not involved with the retreat.

“When you’re in a hospital to see a doctor, the white coat syndrome kicks in,” he said.

For Michael Hayes, an Army veteran who lost his leg in an IED explosion in 2006, Active Heroes provides an alternative form of treatment “for guys that just don’t want to do the normal stuff when they get back.” He had his home redone by Active Heroes to make it handicap-accessible, and he participates in the physical fitness program.

“Not everyone needs to be put on antidepressants, not everyone needs to be put on a sleep aid,” Hayes said. “They get to go on their own and figure out their issues with people they can connect with. That’s more powerful than any drug.”

The physical fitness program now includes 10,000 vets in teams across the U.S.

“They’re assisting each other when any of them gets down, either mentally, financially, physically,” Yocum said.

Learn more at activeheroes.org

lin.cj@stripes.com
Twitter: @cjlinSS

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