Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is one of the most common health problems faced by U.S. veterans. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, approximately half a million veterans are treated each year for PTSD in VA hospitals and centers. Across the country, veterans have tried virtually everything to cope with PTSD from conventional therapy and medication to hypnosis and electroshock. Unable to find relief from their symptoms, some desperate vets have committed suicide.
GPAA member Tom Coulter, a disabled veteran with a severe case of PTSD, says he has found a way to cope that has worked for him. It’s called membership in the Lost Dutchman Mining Association (LDMA). Coulter spends up to five months each year with his wife Artie at the LDMA Duisenberg Camp in Kern County, California.
“If it wasn’t for this camp, I would be dead,” Tom says frankly, with complete conviction.
When asked to explain, the vet says, “This camp is so calming and peaceful. You can come out here and there are sixty acres where nobody bothers you. There are no drugs, no crackheads, no family feuds or anything like that.”
Tom and Artie like to spend their spring and fall months at the Duisenberg Camp, when the desert is especially beautiful with wild flowers in bloom like the colorful California poppy.
“When Tom comes out here, his whole demeanor changes,” Artie says.
Science backs up what the Coulters are saying. Studies have shown that immersion in natural surroundings has improved the mental and physical health of study participants by as much as 30 percent. According to Dr. Miles Richardson of the University of Derby in the United Kingdom, “Feeling a part of nature has been shown to significantly correlate with life satisfaction, vitality, meaningfulness, happiness, mindfulness, and lower cognitive anxiety.”
Fresh air and vitamin D-rich sunlight have long been known to relax nature lovers but recently another factor has been added to the mix—dirt. Yes, what gold prospectors have been saying for generations now has scientific evidence behind it. Digging in the dirt is good for you.
Researchers at the University of Boulder in Colorado suggest that a harmless bacterium (Mycobacterium vaccae) commonly found in soil may be able to act as a natural antidepressant by helping the human brain release serotonin.
Scientists at the University of Bristol in the UK came to a similar conclusion when they found that mice fed the bacterium showed an increase in serotonin and a reduction in anxiety.
“I can’t play in the dirt anymore because I have trouble walking,” Tom comments. “But I used to play in the dirt. When I lived in Bakersfield I would go to the Kern River and sit in the river in a chair. I would dig a hole and shovel into my sluice all day long. And I would get gold out of that hole. I would do that for five or six hours. I can’t do any panning anymore with my hands now, but I will help people and show them how to pan.”
In addition to helping Camp Duisenberg visitors improve their skills, Tom also serves as watchman when camp caretakers Mel and Charlotte go into town.
“I told Charlotte and Mel, there’s nothing going to be missing on my watch,” Tom says. “Of course we’ve never had anything stolen here.”
That’s because LDMA members are like a big, extended family.
“Everybody helps everybody,” Tom says. “Everybody works. And nobody goes hungry at Duisenberg!” (If they’re especially lucky, they may get to enjoy some of Artie’s chicken-fried steaks.)
The difference between how Tom is away from camp back home in the city and how he is during the months that he is living at camp is “like night and day,” Artie comments. At Camp Duisenberg, Tom is personable and relaxed, talking with members and sharing his knowledge of the area and where to find gold.
“I love it,” Artie says. “That’s why I like to come out here with him because this is where he’s in his element.” Although Tom’s PTSD is still with him, and he may jump and duck when a door slams unexpectedly, Tom is happier at Camp Duisenberg than he is anywhere else in the world.
“This placed has saved his life,” Artie says.
Priscilla Rhoades is a freelance writer and GPAA member based out of Georgia.