My name is Erik Villaseñor. I served in the US Army as an infantryman from 2006 to 2012, with two combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m 33 years old. I’m a husband, a father of two amazing children, a reader and writer, hiker and mountain biker. I’m also thrilled to announce that I am the new program director of Huts For Vets.
My journey with Huts For Vets (HFV) started in the summer of 2015, when I applied for my first trip at the urging of a psychologist at the VA. By this point, I had been out of the Army for three years, had recently obtained my Bachelor’s degree in graphic design from the Art Institute in Denver, and yet I felt lost. I reluctantly filled out the application but found myself refreshing my inbox, eager for a response. About a week later I received a call from Paul Andersen, the executive director, who told me that I was going on a trip. The rest, as they say, is history.
The old-me died on that mountain. I found myself revitalized, cleansed by the fresh streams, pounded into the dirt on our hikes, and scattered across the forest by the cool mountain breeze. When I returned from the wilderness I saw the world through a new lens. My HFV experience stoked a fire in me to share this program with every veteran I come across.
To get involved, I joined the board of directors in 2016 and offered my design and marketing skills through my former employer, Align Multimedia, with the hopes of helping HFV reach more veterans. I had the opportunity to work closely with Paul in redesigning the HFV website, assisting in social media, and designing a manual which encompasses the HFV story and methodology. I participated in the HFV moderator training in 2017 and jumped at every opportunity to serve as a co-moderator/peer mentor. Not only did I discover the restorative power of the wilderness, but I also found that helping other veterans was therapeutic for me.
My goal as program director is to use my design and problem-solving skills to create and implement processes that allow our team to put our sole focus and energy into running successful trips for the veterans that we serve. To achieve this goal, I will be assisting in the application process by contacting applicants and placing them into trips. I plan to create and implement a marketing strategy for print, online, and social media. I will also assist in various trip and administrative duties, both in the office and out in the field.
As scientific studies of nature-based therapy and the healing effects of “forest bathing” – or, as the Japanese call it, Shinrin-yoku – become more known, it is my goal to make HFV synonymous with this wilderness revolution.
However, immersing oneself in nature for health and vitality is not a new concept. HFV and other veteran, and civilian, organizations, have been running nature-based programs for many years. What distinguishes Hut For Vets is the philosophical content of the assigned readings notebook that forms the context and content of our trips into the wilderness at the 10th Mountain Hut system of Aspen.
Combining nature and the world of ideas is especially important given the toll that the COVID pandemic has taken on all our lives. My hope is that we can discover and unify around nature and its preservation, not only for our nation’s veterans, but for all of us, especially future generations.
I believe in the HFV mission because it saved me from a life of self-destruction, depression, and anxiety. I believe that it can save others, too. The notebook of readings and the subsequent discussions held on the trips gave me the tools needed to address my mind, body, soul, and spirit. The HFV approach has helped me lead a more healthy life by recognizing that I need to seek out nature to be the best version of myself.
I look forward to this new chapter in my life of sharing my love of nature, literature, and the HFV methodology with my fellow veteran brothers and sisters.
See you on the trail.