Going to a war is easy for a young person. You do what you’re told, carry a weapon, and run in formation every morning. You are constantly surrounded by people in your exact predicament. There is hardly anything to it. It was easy for me when I was a teenager. I didn’t even realize at the time that I was scared: I had very little to lose and the path to self-development seemed like such a suburban waste of time. On many levels my enlistment was a decision to avoid the social perils of work, health-insurance, and dating. Little did I know that these problems would still be waiting for me four years later.
How do these veterans cope? What hope is there in treatment, be it medical or spiritual, for ex-soldiers with mental illness? What exactly is it about emotional trauma that demands such a thorough and time-consuming healing? How is that healing facilitated in post-modern suburban America? One surprisingly effective answer for many veterans has been the local skateboard park.
Go to any skatepark in America and an astonishing number of young veterans from every political and economic background will tell you about the curative properties of skateboarding. Many claim there is a meditative quality to the sport that promotes relaxation and emotional balance. Some claim skateboarding as a miracle cure for their various ailments. Before looking into the physical and mental benefits of skateboarding, it is necessary to take a moment to realize the more important community benefits of the skatepark itself.
Skateparks are centers of community. They serve distinct groups of individuals, and provide a place for a popular sub-culture to gather. They are sometimes counter-cultural temples where the disaffected gather to express themselves and socialize. Skateparks encourage a spirit of community among folks who would otherwise end up skating in dangerous and unclean places. Best of all, if they designed with the principle of community in mind, skateparks can be a place of great healing.
The emphasis on community is central to the treatment of mental illness, especially PTSD. A tell-tale symptom in the diagnosis of anxiety disorders is social withdrawal and isolation. Veterans suffering from PTSD are often afraid or unwilling to venture into public, and primary treatment of the disorder always involves re-socialization. Skateparks are perfectly suited to this purpose due to their low-key, counter-cultural tendencies as well as their familiar setting: concrete and minimal decoration. Simple, short encounters with other people while wearing a helmet and pads can be reassuring to vets who might miss the comfort of their heavy armor. By providing veterans with specialized topics for discussion that are unrelated to warfare, such as skating equipment, tricks, and famous skaters, skateparks offer veterans a means of conversational engagement and a milieu of interpersonal connections.
The cultural benefits of the skatepark are not limited to just these aspects. They include an entire contextual lifestyle: Skateboarding is a peaceful activity. By picking up ‘skater’ lexicon, building relationships outside of the mainstream veterans’ community, and associating with young people in their own context, those who suffer from mental illness can be affirmed in the inclusive atmosphere even through non-participant observation. Skateparks are a great place for veterans to reconnect with children, even if only accompanying them or cheering them on. A good skatepark will offer an area for parents to observe which offers social opportunities for non-skaters too. Much like some society’s traditional places of ritual, the skatepark is a center of interaction and can be ascribed healing properties which occur in tandem with those rituals.
For those like myself who struggle daily with their participation in an often morally-obscured war, the opportunity of having an apolitical place to socialize in an otherwise politically polarized town is wonderful. Skate culture transcends political differences and focuses on sportsmanship and camaraderie. This can be reassuring to veterans who are wary of politically charged causes or groups.
Another benefit to skateboarding to the average participant is that it is cost-effective. For veterans struggling with to provide for families, medical costs, legal troubles or education, the skateboard offers an inexpensive form of therapy and recreation. A serviceable skateboard, helmet and pads can be purchased for less than $150 and will last for years, though sharing extra equipment between skaters is common. Compare this to the expense of snowboarding where lift tickets, transportation and specialized gear can cost a thousand dollars or more. For a veteran on a limited budget, getting into skateboarding is a reasonable expense.
Skateboarding is environmentally friendly. Once a skatepark is built there is very little ecological impact from the facility provided that it is well-maintained. Unlike sports such as motocross, automobile racing, hunting, sky-diving or dirt-biking, it does not involve burning fossil fuels, and there is little habitat or wildlife degradation as a result. Skateboarding is a sustainable sport that will be around for many generations to come.
The physical benefits of skateboard mirror the cultural ones. Skateboarding is cardio-intensive and muscle-strengthening at the same time. The physical endurance of skating rivals that of running or soccer, and the agility and coordination of required to do tricks is as demanding as ballet or rock-climbing. It takes great balance and physical stamina to become an accomplished skater.
Veterans often struggle with weight control. Soldiers are required to maintain body fat standards and discipline is strictly enforced. When separated from the military, it is not uncommon for emotional trauma to be linked to physical trauma. Many soldiers with depression, PTSD, or combat injuries struggle to maintain a healthy weight. For some it can be difficult to find the motivation to exercise as a civilian because it is usually a lonely activity whereas in the army it was social. Skateboarding is an excellent way to get exercise in a social environment without having to pay hundreds of dollars for a gym membership. For me, skating has helped control my own high-blood pressure and weight.
Skateboarding provides a meditative relaxation by promoting focus on the physical act of riding a board. This is a treatment for anxiety similar to the ones seek to make a patient acutely aware of his or her physical body. By focusing on skating, anxiety is reduced and blood-pressure is lowered. Mental and physical wellness are both improved by focusing intensely on the physical task.
By acquiring new skating abilities a veteran can take pride in peaceable accomplishments while improving his or her self-esteem. Veterans learn how to overcome fear by facing a steep drop on a concrete ledge at a high speed; they learn how to overcome the past by focusing on the task at hand, which is keeping upright.
Skate culture transcends political differences and focuses on sportsmanship and camaraderie. This can be reassuring to veterans who are wary of politically charged causes or groups.
Notably, it is important that a skater not be drunk while attempting maneuvers. Veterans have a very high rate of substance abuse and alcoholism and are discouraged from using and drinking while they are skating, if only to save themselves from injury. I have yet to see a drunk vet at the local skatepark, though there are plenty at the VFW lodge down the street. The emotional rewards in skateboarding are performance-based, so alcohol becomes an obstacle between the skater and his or her reward.
These benefits, taken together, constitute a picture of skating as a healthy, healing activity for veterans returning from war. Whether by promoting physical exercise, community or relaxation, skateparks and skateboarding are a positive and low-impact way of providing therapeutic treatment to the emotionally-damaged. As a peaceful, constructive and creative activity, skateboarding at a well-designed and well-maintained public skatepark can be one of the most valuable and fun things to do for the entire family.
By building public skateparks, a city or town is ensuring the health and well-being of their children, veterans, and disaffected teenagers, both physically and mentally. I cannot emphasize enough the importance that skateboarding has played in my own family and life, as well as in my friends’ lives. I speak for all skating vets when I say thank you to the folks who fund and build public skateparks. Thank you.
Evan Knappenberger is a skater-stepfather and OIF ‘05-’07 veteran with PTSD and depression. He is a student at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, WA.