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Recreation therapy helps Veterans heal, thrive

woman shovels compost

Navy Veteran Relles Campos shovels compost as part of a VA recreation therapy outing to Empower Farms in Florida City.

Monday, February 26, 2018

When Relles Campos stepped out of the car at Empower Farms in the sticks of Florida City, it was a sign of growth.

“Before, I couldn’t even drive down here,” Campos said. “I get very nervous driving. I’m an anxiety driver.”

The retired Navy Veteran visited the farm in early February with a small group of Veterans as part of her recreation therapy at the Miami VA Healthcare System. Because of therapeutic outings like these, Campos is more confident behind the wheel and can now drive short distances. She’s still working on driving farther.

VA recreation therapy gives Veterans like Campos the tools to meet their specific physical, mental and social goals, such as regaining independence, reintegrating back into civilian life and combating the urge to isolate from others.

“I had lots of mixed emotions and just held them in”

From 2007 to 2009, Campos deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. While in Afghanistan, Campos’ unit worked in the Bagram Theater Internment Facility or B-TIF, as she called it. The deployment was hard to process for many reasons.

“We had to deal hands on with the insurgents,” Campos said. “There were times where an insurgent would be brought in who had just killed two or three of our Soldiers. Then we would see the coffins go by. After, we would have to go back and care for the insurgents in a humane way. I had lots of mixed emotions and just held them in.”

After retiring from the military, Campos struggled to transition from the structure of the military to what she called the “chaos” of civilian life. The feelings she bottled inside in Afghanistan were also beginning to creep to the surface. A fellow Veteran, who served with her in the Navy, suggested Campos consider recreation therapy at VA.

“Theresa kept telling me about it,” Campos said. “Every time I go and do stuff like this, it’s good to know there’s lots of other Veterans that can identify with you. Nobody judges you here. We swim with the dolphins, go kayaking and sometimes just go on picnics. I love it.”

While at the farm, the three women Veterans tended fields, painted a portable chicken coop, and picked weeds from the farm’s crops. The goal of outings like these is to teach Veterans they can adapt to any activity or environment, according to Tabitha Aragon, recreation therapist at the Miami VA..

“Recreation therapy is a consult service that can be added to any Veteran’s care if they feel it is needed,” Aragon said. “The Veterans I work with are living with mental health and medical issues. Some are recovering from strokes. Others are learning to live with amputations, paralysis and invisible wounds of war. These outings help get Veterans out of the house and shows them how to adapt to civilian life.”

Campos said there’s still ways to go, but recreation therapy is helping her manage the anxiety of driving and readjusting to life as a civilian.

“It helps me go further distances. That’s a good thing,” she said.

Recreation therapy is also helping Campos’ battle buddy, retired Navy Veteran Theresa Castro.

woman shovels compost

β€œIt gets me away from the everyday stresses,” said Castro, a Navy Veteran. β€œI turn off the phone. Focus on what I need to do, and try not to worry about the stressors. The phone will be there when I get back from taking care of me.”

“He was not with us mentally for about two years”

Castro and her husband are both Veterans. The Veteran couple has been involved in recreation therapy since around 2011 when he was recovering from brain surgery. At the time, Castro noticed her husband was changing.

“When we first met Tabitha, he didn’t come out of the house much,” Castro said. “He was not with us mentally for about two years. He was isolating.”

It took about a year of recreation therapy for Castro’s husband to see a difference. He is now doing much better.

“He goes on trips now. He went to the Grand Canyon with our daughter. He has made progress,” Castro said.

Castro isn’t the only one happy to see her husband’s recovery. The couple have an 18-year-old daughter who is glad to have dad around again.

“He goes and watches her play soccer and do track. She enjoys having him back,” Castro said.

While Castro’s husband has benefited from recreation therapy, the program provides her an escape and a way to de-stress.

“It gets me away from the everyday stresses,” Castro said. “I turn off the phone. Focus on what I need to do, and try not to worry about the stressors. The phone will be there when I get back from taking care of me.”

Castro is a caregiver to her husband and participates in the VA Caregiver Support Program.

woman paints mobile chicken coop

Veteran Cira Ujueta paints a mobile chicken coop as part of a VA recreation therapy outing to Empower Farms in Florida City.

“It’s o.k. to ask for help”

While at the farm, Veteran Cira Ujueta discovered she liked to paint. She participated in the outing with her girlfriend and caregiver, Katia Sosa. Ujueta served in the Army National Guard from 2006 to 2011 and deployed to Iraq from 2009 to 2010. When she returned home, there wasn’t much support.

“It was hard being out there [in Iraq], but it was a lot harder when I got back from deployment,” Ujueta said. “It was tough because I didn’t have much family support or help. I handled things on my own and didn’t seek help from people who were still in [the military].”

Ujueta heard about the benefits of recreation therapy from other Veterans and decided to give it a shot. Six months later, the program is making a difference.

“I think I’m doing a lot better than how I was,” Ujueta said. “Now, I’m trying to live the healthy way and get involved in the community as much as possible.”

Caregivers play a significant role in the health, well-being and recovery of Veterans. Sosa said Ujueta used to shut down and close herself off from others. Recreation therapy and honest communication have made a difference.

“Being a caregiver is not easy, but it’s rewarding,” Sosa said. “[Recreation therapy] helped Cira a lot. She’s more free and talkative. She used to be really quiet. Now, we talk about everything. Going to these events and talking to other Veterans is good for her. She’s more open.”

The outing ended with a lunch of garden and artichoke quinoa salads, hot dogs, and hamburgers. Ujueta wanted to remind other LGBTQ Veterans about the resources and groups for them at the Miami VA and encouraged Veterans to take seek help.

“Take the initiative to see what’s available. It’s o.k. to ask for help.”

Thank you to Empower Farms for supporting South Florida Veterans. From left: Rudy Carillo, farmhand, Bebo Gonzalez, farm manager, Katia Sosa, Cira Ujueta, Relles Campos, Teresa Castro, Tabitha Aragon, and Nicolas Miller, Empower Farms manager.

Recreation therapy at the Miami VA

February is International Recreation Therapy Month and a good time to see if recreation therapy is right for you. Veterans interested in recreation therapy at the Miami VA should speak with their primary care team and request a consult. For more information call 305-575-7000, ext. 4143, or visit www.miami.va.gov/services/Recreation.asp.

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