Leelanau News and Events

Eight Local Veterans Will Have An All-Expenses Paid Wilderness Retreat To South Manitou Island

By Emily Tyra | June 4, 2021

Eric LaPaugh, an Empire resident and owner/therapist at True North Counseling in Traverse City, will lead eight veterans on an all-expenses paid expedition to South Manitou Island this year. The retreat is in collaboration with Grand Traverse County Veterans Affairs, which serves both Grand Traverse and Leelanau Counties.

It’s a wilderness trip of a lifetime, and for a former Marine who served from 1999 to 2003, the opportunity to help fellow veterans.

LaPaugh (pictured above) explains, “Everything good in my life happened when I decided to join the Marine Corps. I was 22 at the time, and I joined and shipped away in less than 90 days. When I went into counseling school, I had a dream of leading a group of veterans to connect with the wilderness and themselves.”

He adds, “After so much time connecting with their brothers and sisters — where they have a tribe, a platoon — veterans can feel a bit lost and disconnected.”

The journey to South Manitou Island — this September 9-12 — is open specifically to eight male veterans in Grand Traverse and Leelanau Counties. Transportation to the island, camping gear and food is provided for the four-day trip. “Truly, all the veterans need to bring is clothes, a sleeping bag and pillow,” says LaPaugh.

Grand Traverse County Veterans Affairs Director Michael Roof tells the Leelanau Ticker costs are covered by a County Veterans Service Fund grant through the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency. “Eric brought this up to me last year, and when I applied for funding this year, we decided we can make it happen. He’s a really passionate person about mental health.”

LaPaugh is a licensed therapist who believes that connecting with nature brings peace of mind. At his Traverse City practice, he offers clients the choice between in-office visits or what he calls “walk-n-talk sessions, utilizing the natural healing of nature combined with professional therapy.”

He tells the Leelanau Ticker that this trip is “a retreat for the veterans and not therapy-based in nature. There will be hikes, and a lot of hanging out at camp in hammocks, and other free time built in.” He will lead two daily group sessions teaching mindfulness and coping skills “but those are voluntary, and they can sit in on them if they wish. This is a special opportunity for fellowship and connecting with each other and nature.”

LaPaugh says his awareness that time spent outdoors can be therapeutic has evolved through his career, and really started at a young age. “I grew up in the Michigan woods and found that to be my escape and go-to place to enjoy nature, calm down, and get away from my chaotic family.”

Later when he was working in resident life at The Leelanau School “right on the Crystal River and Lake Michigan, my first inclination was these kids would open up to me and talk about everything while we were on the river, or while fishing, in a way they would not in the office.”

LaPaugh then started his own recreational guiding company, leading groups to points out west and locally to the Manitou Islands. “And once I got into grad school, I studied the effect of wilderness on mental health and the brain. When we are in nature, the feel-good chemicals are released quite a bit more than in an urban setting where we are emitting more of a stress hormone. My theory is we came from the forest — that is home to our DNA and our bodies — and where we feel calmer and more relaxed.”

South Manitou Island was chosen for the trip because of the true immersive experience it offers, and the memories and personal connections that come with that.

“You have this special feeling once you get on the island and you are surrounded by water…it’s a huge release,” says LaPaugh. “There is an old growth forest that after a rainstorm can be so misty, you half expect to see dinosaurs walking around. The island brings about out-of-the-ordinary experiences that, when shared with someone else, create long-lasting bonds.”

Connecting local veterans to each other is a primary reason for the trip; “a second is to connect them with the county veterans affairs office for support in the future — anything from rides to paper work, or help figuring things out.”

Roof says Leelanau County is currently home to approximately 1600 veterans; Grand Traverse County is home to 6500. Leelanau County has contracted with the Grand Traverse County Department of Veterans Affairs to provide services, with an accredited service officer on site within the Administrator’s office at the Leelanau County Government Center every Tuesday to assist veterans and their dependents

Roof adds, “Right now the biggest thing is that some people — still due to COVID — aren’t getting out and getting the services they need. They aren’t feeling like it’s okay to leave their house and go to a county building. We can see this by the numbers.”

He adds, “Other veterans just don’t know about our office and that we can help with financial assistance, or to apply for VA disability, pension benefits, or help them get enrolled in VA healthcare. One hope for this trip will be to connect that bridge.”

In addition to LaPaugh and fellow veterans, a Veterans Service Officer will be going on the trip.

“This is a pilot program, and hopefully the first of many,” says LaPaugh. Next year he hopes to lead both a male and a female trip to the island.

“The main reason I am doing it, is that I care and know what it’s like to feel that sort of aloneness without a tribe. My hope is that the veterans on the trip are friends afterwards,” he says. “That’s how I would gauge success.”

Any veteran in Leelanau and Grand Traverse Counties wishing to be considered for a spot can email a paragraph stating why the island retreat would be beneficial for them to veterans@gtcountymi.gov. Participants will be notified by August 10, 2021.

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