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Vets reflect on Canyon Heroes experience

| Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015, 10:40 p.m.

As he laid down to sleep under the stars, Richard Gribenas, 66, of Hempfield stared up at the Grand Canyon in awe of its tranquil beauty, relishing a moment free of cellphones, schedule commitments and life's usual interruptions.

Gribenas, a U.S. Army veteran, spent a week camping and rafting along the Colorado River, absent of the pressures of daily life, easing his symptoms of PTSD.

“It totally made me feel like I was in a different world,” he said.

Gribenas is one of 18 veterans who recently returned from a therapeutic rafting journey sponsored by Canyon Heroes, a Ligonier nonprofit organization that sends veterans dealing with emotional and physical wounds from their deployments on trips down the Colorado River.

“It just opened your mind up that you are still a person that can function, that you can enjoy life when so many other things are burdensome and drag you down,” Gribenas said.

A group of three women and 15 men representing all branches of the military participated in the trip that lasted from July 29 to Aug. 5. They were veterans who served in the Vietnam War, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Afghanistan Freedom and Desert Storm in a variety of capacities. Several counselors accompanied the veterans, who had conditions such as PTSD, depression and anxiety and traumatic brain injuries. Staff from Hatch River Expeditions guided the group alongside a group of civilians.

Psychotherapist Dr. Denise Mahone, 37, of Pittsburgh went on the trip for the first time this year.

At the start of the journey, Mahone observed that several veterans appeared as though “the light had gone out,” she said, like the life had been drained out of one's spirit.

“There's a dullness, almost like a dark cloud in a sense,” she said.

During the week, veterans related they felt their symptoms were absent. Some said being in the canyon, a place so much bigger and older than themselves, transformed them, she said.

“By the end of the trip, there was a light in people's eyes that hadn't been there in the beginning, and that was a really powerful thing,” Mahone said.

Lead therapist Jim Hill, 65, of Mt. Lebanon said the oldest participating veteran was 67 and the youngest was 29. He, Mahone and therapist Dr. Roger Brooke met with veterans individually and in small groups throughout the course of the trip, allowing the veterans to take things at their own pace.

“We pretty much let the river do the work,” he said.

The atmosphere “just lends serenity,” Hill said.

“You're out of the concrete jungle and all of the daily happenings of life,” he said.

U.S. Coast Guard veteran Soleil Black, 31, of Lexington, N.C., has relied on nature therapy for about a year to treat her PTSD. She also has a traumatic brain injury that occurred outside of her service. She's been on trips similar to Canyon Heroes, but this one was “the trip of a lifetime.”

“The moment you step out into nature, you still have your problems, but you have something else, too,” she said. “You have the rest of the world. You have an entire universe that opens up to you.”

An avid hiker, Black was amazed by the side canyons the group ventured into during the trip.

After leaving the service, Black missed the brotherhood of the Coast Guard. Despite having her family's support, she feels at times very lonely and found it difficult to open up to people on previous recreational therapy trips. The Canyon Heroes trip was different though, as Black opened up to others. She especially enjoyed being around the Vietnam veterans who showed a genuine interest in learning about the other veterans' experiences.

“When I got around this group, it felt like being at home,” she said. “I was coming home being with this group. It really meant a lot to me.”

Positive experiences like the one Black had on the trip are why Matt Zamosky, 48, of Unity got involved with the organization as a board member. He believes such recreational therapy is beneficial because it's immersive and takes veterans out of their daily life.

“You don't have to worry about the bills, your job, your family,” he said. “You can just focus on the river.”

“I would like to see us be able to help more veterans moving forward,” he said.

U.S. Army veteran Terry Saffron, 44, of Harker Heights, Texas, still feels a positive impact on his life a year after he went on the trip.

“Before the trip I was kind of pushing things away that I went through,” he said. “After going on the trip and meeting with not just the veterans but the counselors...I got to talk things through and see things in a different way.”

Saffron has PTSD and suffered a traumatic brain injury from a roadside bomb during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He also served in Desert Storm. For him, the Canyon Heroes trip was beneficial because instead of sitting in an office for clinical therapy, “you're out in nature. You're not restricted to four walls.”

“(Canyon Heroes) is making a difference in the lives of veterans,” he said.

Nicole Chynoweth is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2862 or nchynoweth@tribweb.com.

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