Just before Cam Fields was finishing up his last military tour in Afghanistan, he learned that a distraught comrade had died by suicide. His post-traumatic stress disorder had become too difficult to bear, Fields said.
“I remember talking to him prior to finding out about his death. He was trying to go to a specific clinic for some alternative therapy and he couldn’t afford to go.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs, Fields said, “really wasn’t there to help.”
So at the end of that year when the Navy corpsman finished his call of duty, he decided to create his own alternative therapy “at no cost to these guys, to just try and prevent someone else’s buddy from passing on.”
In 2017, Fields launched Front Country Foundation with his own money. Since then he has been bringing veterans to Jackson Hole in the winters to enjoy the same kind of “shred therapy” that has helped him deal with his own PTSD.
“It’s when I feel most like myself. It just puts me in this mellow place where I can accept the negative and the positive,” Fields said.
Snowboarding has always been a point of release for Fields. During his deployment in Afghanistan, he remembered fashioning makeshift snowboards that he surfed through Afghanistan’s “moon dust.”
Today, seven years a veteran, Fields said he is still trying to reintegrate into society. For most veterans “reintegration is the biggest thing we’re seeking after we leave. When we come back, we feel normal, but there is this wall that prevents us from reintegrating,” he said.
That’s just one reason outdoor sports play an increasingly large role in Fields’ life and the veterans he works with. “Whether it’s hiking, biking or skiing, that sort of gives you an in. You can be sitting at the bar or the coffee shop and when you hear someone talking about skiing, instantly there is a jumping-off point.”
In other words, these activities offer a common thread. They are a way to bond with other people and break down the invisible wall that Fields struggles with in social situations. “It just kind of gives you a way to feel normal again,” Fields said.
A lot of veterans are seeking that feeling.
According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, between 11 to 20 percent of veterans who served during the same era as Fields reported suffering from PTSD.
Fields, for his part, first tried conventional therapy offered through the VA. Initially, the prognosis was, “oh, you’re just depressed,” Fields remembered. When he was finally diagnosed with PTSD, Fields tried something called “prolonged exposure.”
That’s when patients recall a particularly painful event and repeatedly talk about it in detail. Fields said it was retraumatizing.
“I don’t understand how that’s supposed to help.”
One therapy he tried helped a little, so he has included that in his offerings at Front Country Foundation. It’s called “eye movement desensitization and reprocessing” or EMDR. It helps the brain transfer painful recurring memories into its long-term storage. But even that, Fields said, wasn’t what he would call “a whole body healing.”
That’s when he started looking into alternative forms of therapy. “Surf therapy is a thing on the East and West coasts,” Fields said. “I just figured why not have a frozen wave.”
One of Front Country Foundation’s cornerstones is supporting veterans with physical disabilities. Fields said adaptive athletes take a snowmobile uphill “and get to laugh on the way up while the rest of us suffer on the uphill hike.”
When they hit the resorts, they enlist Teton Adaptive Sports to provide instructors and adaptive skiing equipment.
And for those who struggle to get to the top of the mountain, Fields said that’s a critical therapeutic element. “They get to the top and realize, ‘I get to go down this.’ And they realize they haven’t been thinking about any of the trauma or negative headspace they came in with.”
“At that point all they can think is, ‘Where are we going next, how can I do this for the rest of my life?’”
Fields wants to infect more veterans with that kind of hope. But working 16-hour days to fund his project has been taxing. So Fields is ramping up fundraising efforts. On Tuesday, July 16, from 5 to 9 p.m. Front Country Foundation is the featured nonprofit at Hand Fire Pizza’s “Pizza with a Purpose.” At 10 p.m. the pizza shop turns into a nightclub for a fundraiser dance party with DJ E.R.A.
Above: Jim Carelas during a Front Country Foundation excursion near Togwotee Pass. (Cam Fields)