Program helps get veterans out of NYC and into fresh air to help maintain their mental health

HIGHLANDS, New Jersey (WABC) -- A program in New Jersey is helping veterans, bringing them together to improve health and wellness while getting outside amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The training program is the brainchild of Mark Otto, executive director of the United War Veterans Council.

He employs rucksacks that hold at least 25 pounds to make the workout harder, but these veterans have a lot more than that on their shoulders.

"We've been doing this health and wellness program with at-risk veterans," Otto said. These veterans are dealing a multitude of issues, from PTSD to TBI (traumatic brain injury) to addiction problems to homelessness to legal complications. Some or all of it."

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And it turns out a hike together works wonders. The vets come from one of two different rehab facilities, one in Times Square and the other in Queens.

"You can imagine with COVID in particular, everyone's in isolation," Otto said. "People are dealing with all these types of issues, to be in isolation with 45 other male veterans cohabitating is really tough."

This program has been around for four years, and the trips happen once a week.

"I love the city, but it's nice to get out," veteran Omar Essa said. "It's nice to get somewhere quiet and actually hear bugs and birds and stuff instead of car horns."

Otto says this kind of activity heals, strengthens, clarifies and calms.

"Peace of mind is, you know, you can't put a price on it," veteran Trevor Hudal said. "I could stay out here all day."

It's all about being together and healing outside, a group of eight to 10 people hiking and enjoying nature.

"You have the ability to take off the mask every now then when you have some space," veteran Liam Lynch said. "And it's nice to be able to feel the fresh air."

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They also walked through a neighborhood and heard shout outs from people along the way.

"It was beautiful to see people coming out in the community, waving, offering their appreciation," Lynch said.

They were curious of the program and offered thanks to the veterans.

"It's very humbling when people thank us for our service," veteran Jesus Hernandez said. "You know, I was young. I was 17."

A shared burden weighs less, and shared joy means even more.

"It's cool because I have my best friends here," Hudal said. "Some of them have been in combat, some of them haven't."

But together, they can learn from shared experiences in a safe and open place.

"It's better than running," Otto said. "You're walking, so it's easier to actually get out there, walk and talk and socialize with other people."

Join us: ABC7NY and the United War Veterans Council unite to mark Veterans Day and support our Veterans

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