It’s been just over a year since Royal Canadian Navy veteran Rich Pearce became a hunter host with The Veteran Hunters. In that time, he’s provided life-changing mentorship to many veterans on Vancouver Island.
Originally founded in Alberta by Tod Hisey, The Veteran Hunters is a peer support network for veterans and first responders struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The organization focuses on bringing people together through outdoor adventures.
Pearce heard about the program through his wife, who is also an ex-military member. He reached out to Tod, and was cleared to start up his own branch. Since then, he’s led a number of expeditions on Vancouver Island and seen a marked improvement in fellow veterans who were struggling to adjust to the civilian world.
“These guys went from being distracted and stressed, to more focused, more calm, having better situations with family, better situations at work, dealing with other people,” said Pearce.
Many of the members are united by a shared love of hunting, but as Pearce tells it, that’s the least important aspect of the trips. The real healing comes from spending time with people who can understand your experiences, in a setting that forces you to remain present. That can be a real challenge for veterans who are struggling with conditions like PTSD and other kinds of operational stress injury (OSI), which can keep you reliving traumatic incidents from the past.
“Hunting is something that makes you stay in the moment. You have to very much be focused on what you’re doing … you can’t be thinking about five years ago, or 20 years ago when you were in Afghanistan. You have to stay in the moment,” said Pearce.
Pearce served in the Royal Canadian Navy for 23 years. He was able to make a relatively smooth transition back into civilian life by working with the Department of National Defence.
Not all of his friends were so lucky. Watching his friends disperse throughout Canada after their release, and struggle with limited support networks was a big reason he took up the volunteer role.
“When you leave (the military) sometimes, there’s sort of a void that you need to fill somehow. You lose that sense of belonging. It allows them to build that sense of belonging,” said Pearce.
The volunteer work also helps him with his own work-life balance.
“For me, getting out and helping guys do this, is a way of helping me manage my stress and issues,” he said.
“To be able to be in a place where I can help other people deal with that, is something I find gives me a lot of satisfaction, and allows me to feel like I’m giving back.”
Part of Pearce’s work is also raising awareness so that other people understand the realities of living with PTSD.
Adjusting to the civilian workforce can be a challenge for people with PTSD, especially when employers and co-workers don’t understand what a veteran is going through. He stresses that it’s not just veterans – police, first responders, paramedics, firefighters, and even forestry and fisheries workers deal with PTSD.
“If someone has PTSD or OSI, they’re just as injured as someone with a physical injury,” said Pearce. “It’s OK to say I have a problem, it’s OK to ask help.”
He hopes to continue building and supporting the community of his brothers and sisters in arms, and to champion other veterans groups across B.C. and the country.
Rich Pearce is the 2021 Unsung Hero of the Year.
Nominations for the 2022 Local Hero Awards West Shore open on Feb. 25. To learn more, go to hero.goldstreamgazette.com.
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