There’s no way around it: the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying restrictions to travel and public gatherings was tough on everyone. When the pandemic forced Veterans to limit outdoor interactions, the Omaha VA mental health team developed new ways to keep Veterans active. One way is by virtually walking across the United States.

That’s especially the case for Veterans diagnosed with mental illness and cognitive disorders. As studies have frequently shown, daily and weekly physical fitness activities are extremely important in promoting improved mental health and memory skills.

The staff at Omaha VA’s Psychosocial Rehabilitation Recovery Center (PRRC) put on their creative hats to find new ways to help their Veterans remain active.

“We had to become creative,” said Nancy Engquist, PRRC coordinator. “We had to find a way to help our Veterans continue to be active and have the community support they had prior to the pandemic.”

From left, Air Force Veteran Jeff Fanning, Air Force Veteran Robert Evans, Army Veteran William Klumper, and Air Force Veteran and VA peer specialist Jeremiah Jones walking on a trail near the Omaha VA campus.

Specialized program for mental illness

The PRRC program is a specialized recovery-oriented outpatient program for Veterans with serious mental illness. The core elements of the program include individualized assessment, recovery planning, skills-building, group therapy, psychosocial education, wellness activities, community outings and peer support.

The peer support portion of the program is particularly important for Veterans receiving mental health treatments through PRRC, said Colleen Evans, VA social worker.

“We had Veterans struggling with this sense of isolation, Veterans who were sitting at home, watching TV all day,” Evans said. “We had to find a way for them to become active and having this feeling of belonging to a group.”

The team had an idea. During the initial months of the pandemic, Veterans held walking competitions. Teams would record the number of steps they made in the hospital hallways.

Virtual walking tour of America

Starting in May, the weekly step competition transitioned into a virtual walking tour of the United States.

“It was really the idea of the Veterans,” Evans added. “Instead of participating in teams, they wanted to work together to see how many collective steps they could register in the course of a week.”

The walkers initially started in Bangor, Maine, with the goal of walking to Niagara Falls. Each week, the Veterans would record the number of steps they put in as recorded by either their phones or pedometers.

On any given week, five or six of the participating Veterans would log their step counts. Soon, their collective steps amounted to more than more than 100,000 steps in a single seven-day period.

18 Veterans have been a part of the virtual activity

Within a few short weeks, the Veterans had virtually walked to their Niagara Falls goal. The staff prepared a series of video tours, allowing the Veterans to imagine themselves seeing the waterfalls in real life.

The journey didn’t stop there, either. Next up, the Veterans walked to Green Bay, Wisconsin. From there, it was across Minnesota and South Dakota for a stop at the Black Hills.

The ultimate goal? San Francisco.

“It has contributed to a new sense of community and reinforced this idea that they’re in it together,” Evans said. “Granted, the tour is just virtual, but they really have embraced this idea that they’re on a journey together and they want to get to that final destination together.”

Going to keep traveling and keep learning

That’s exactly the response that the team hoped to create, said Engquist.

Studies have shown that incorporation of physical wellness activities can play a vital role in the management of symptoms of depression. It also adds a sense of accomplishment and purpose each week – a key component to mental health recovery.

With the rate the Veterans are now walking, they will soon achieve their goal of walking from Bangor, Maine, to San Francisco, California.

“We’re not going to quit,” Engquist said. “Once we get to San Francisco, we will look at creating a new virtual tour, maybe Europe or Asia. This is just the start of the journey. Where we go when this chapter is over, who knows? But we’re definitely going to keep traveling and keep learning.”

By Kevin Hynes is a public affairs office for the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System

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Published on Sep. 9, 2021

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One Comment

  1. Tara Lamb September 14, 2021 at 4:17 pm

    My friend John Fry is a HERO :) He was in the Vietnam War… :)

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