- Associated Press - Friday, March 6, 2015

LIGONIER, Pa. — His thirst for adventure and exploration gone, the Army veteran struggled with deep anxiety and depression.

“I’ve always been active, and then with these conditions, I shied away from being who I was,” Mike Busovicki, 36, of Canonsburg said.

But last summer, on the Colorado River in Arizona, with fellow veterans at his side, Busovicki - who now works for the Department of Veterans Affairs - rediscovered his zest for life.

He is among many whose lives have changed for the better thanks to Canyon Heroes, a Ligonier group sending veterans dealing with emotional and physical wounds from their deployments on therapeutic rafting journeys down the Colorado. The organization is accepting applications until March 16 for its 2015 trip, which is scheduled for July 29 to Aug. 5.

“It got me back in touch with who I was, who I felt comfortable being,” Busovicki said.

“If you’re thinking about (applying), absolutely do it,” he said. “Don’t hesitate. You will be among friends. You will be among battle buddies and shipmates.”

It all began with founder Margery Hermann, 79, of Ligonier Township, who was taken aback by the poor treatment received by veterans returning from the Vietnam War.

“At that point, I decided someday I really wanted to do something for veterans,” she said.

When she rafted down the Colorado River in 2009, she learned from river guides how the activity can be therapeutic for people with disabilities.

Immediately, she thought how veterans might benefit from the experience.

In 2012, the Canyon Heroes sent one veteran on the trip, and in 2013, 11 veterans took part. Last year, 15 veterans took the trip, funded entirely by donations to the group, which Hermann operates with a group of volunteers.

Staff from Hatch River Expeditions serve as tour guides.

The organization hopes to take 18 veterans to the Grand Canyon in 2015.

Canyon Heroes pays for the entire trip for each veteran, asking only that they purchase trip insurance. Several therapists volunteering their time accompany the veterans.

Lead counselor Jim Hill, who went with the group in 2014, interviews applicants about their struggles and how they think they’ll benefit from the trip.

Hill, who served in the Marines in the Vietnam War, said the experience helps veterans in different ways than clinical therapy because it “takes them out of their comfort zone and into a new surrounding.”

Hill and Roger Brooke, a therapist on the trip, tried to keep the journey simple, avoiding “an intensive therapy regime.”

They checked in with the veterans each day to develop a camaraderie and trust, and eventually saw a change in the veterans’ willingness to share their stories.

“We were encouraged to really open up in group session with Dr. Roger Brooke, to open up about what we had experienced and what we were having trouble dealing with,” Busovicki said. “To get to a place where you can admit that in front of strangers, it feels so good to open up about your experiences and what your pain is.”

Talking to younger veterans about their experiences proved therapeutic for Russell Christiana, 59, of Wexford.

“We were kind of like a family,” said Christiana, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom and in Kuwait during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

After the trip, Christiana, who was diagnosed with depression, felt “a burst of energy,” and his ability to open up to friends and family improved.

Former military policeman Brent Grushecky, 58, of West Newton appreciated the opportunity to meet other veterans and share experiences.

“Being able to say, ‘Hey, when you’re in this particular situation, is this how you feel?’ and they know absolutely how you feel - it’s almost like a validation of your own feelings in a way,” he said.

“I can’t say enough about what a positive experience it was in my life.”

Brooke, who is director of military psychological services at Duquesne University’s Psychology Clinic, is following the veterans’ post-trip progress for two years.

For Busovicki, the experience filled a giant void in his post-service life.

“It was definitely a team atmosphere, and that team atmosphere is something that you keep looking for when you get out of the military, and you never find it,” Busovicki said. “I found it on this trip.



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