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President signs Smith’s outdoor therapy veterans legislation into law

Legislation authored by U.S. Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) to help veterans of the armed forces heal through outdoor recreational therapy has been signed into law by President Donald Trump.

Smith’s bipartisan Accelerating Veterans Recovery Outdoors Act, which was endorsed by more than 120 veteran service organizations, outdoor recreation groups and conservation organizations, will provide increased access to federal lands for the purposes of veterans’ medical recovery therapy, according to a press release from the congressman’s office.

Smith’s bill, which was cosponsored by 136 bipartisan lawmakers, was included in a package of veterans’ legislation, the Veterans’ COMPACT Act, which passed unanimously in the House of Representatives in September and was passed unanimously by the Senate in November. Trump recently signed the legislation into law.

“Research has shown that outdoor recreation can be an effective form of treatment, rehabilitation and healing for veterans,” said Smith, who is the author of the Veterans Health Programs Improvement Act and 13 other veterans laws.

“While many nonprofit organizations, veteran service organizations and private companies have used the outdoors to help heroes heal, providing greater coordination among key federal agencies will open new opportunities for veterans on public lands and other outdoor spaces,” said Smith, who has twice served as chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

The new law will require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to establish an interagency task force on the use of public lands to provide medical treatment and therapy to veterans through outdoor recreation, according to the press release.

After undertaking a comprehensive analysis, the task force will submit recommendations to Congress, within one year, on how to eliminate barriers and provide more public outdoor space for use by the nation’s veterans.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), between 11% and 20% of veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, 12% of those who served in Desert Storm have PTSD in a given year, and 30% of those who served in Vietnam, will have had PTSD in their lifetime.

During House debate, Smith recounted how one combat wounded veteran who served in Iraq and was suffering from severe depression, anxiety and PTSD responded to outdoor therapy.

Smith said the veteran made three visits to Veterans Administration psychiatric wards and a substance abuse rehabilitation facility, but said it was a backpacking trip led by the Sierra Club that changed his perspective.

Smith quoted the veteran’s own words: “When the depression, anxiety and everything else that comes with PTSD creeps back into my life, I know just what to do: Strap on a pack and get outside.’’

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