Research project looks to connect returned soldiers and nature

By AMANDA TAYLOR | Watertown Daily Times | Published: September 7, 2012

CARTHAGE, N.Y. — Keith G. Tidball, a senior extension associate at Cornell University, Ithaca, wants to know if nature has a positive effect on soldiers returning from deployment.

“We heard a lot of stories from soldiers about how relating to nature was a key component to their own integration coming home from combat,” Mr. Tidball said. He is the principal investigator on “Returning Warriors: A Study of the Social-Ecological Benefits of Coming Home to Nature.”

The first part of human-based research began Thursday with two two-hour focus groups at the Carthage American Legion. Stephanie A. Graf of Cornell Cooperative Extension said beginning in the Fort Drum area is beneficial to the study.

“There is such a large number of active duty and geographically disperse military personnel living in the community,” said Ms. Graf, who is Cornell Cooperative Extension’s youth and family development program leader and 4-H military liaison for Jefferson County.

In the first hour, Mr. Tidball concentrated on getting to know the volunteers who signed up and introducing the idea behind the research.

He said the project originated during a three-year Military Families Civic Ecology study. The focus of that program was determining how communities and families with children benefited from interacting with nature.

“We found that family and neighborhood outdoor experiences helped to contribute to family resilience, neighborhood resilience and community resilience,” Mr. Tidball said.

He also found that soldiers themselves were benefiting. “Memories of hunting, fishing ... skiing and kayaking helped (soldiers) through when times were tough,” Mr. Tidball said.

Having worked with Ms. Graf’s group on the Military Families project, Mr. Tidball wanted to customize his research to focus on soldiers.

In the second portion of the focus group, participants in groups of two used magazines to create a diagram explaining how they believed nature affected a soldier in terms of his or her relationships. Each group then presented its diagram and initiated a group discussion.

Ms. Graf said that although results from the noon focus group confirmed expected trends, they also highlighted a few new things.

“There was some talk on how essential team-building and family-building activities are in reintegrating into society after deployment,” Ms. Graf said.

The project is funded through an $85,600 Hatch and Smith-Lever funds grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Returning Warriors project will wrap up its first year of funding Sept. 30. While the first year focused on gathering background information and general themes for the project, the second will revolve around face-to-face interaction and the third will focus on analysis and interpretation.

Mr. Tidball said the team would like to make its research applicable to the U.S. Department of Defense in three to five years.

He said the project is important because soldiers “are a national treasure just like parks and wildlife ... and we need to think of how they overlap for the well-being of the national treasures themselves.”


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