Healing at Camp Hero: Addressing first responders’ invisible scars

Organizers hope a nature immersion program will help first responders deal with mental health issues.
Organizers hope a nature immersion program will help first responders deal with mental health issues.
Updated: Feb. 7, 2022 at 4:00 PM EST
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McKEE, Ky. (WKYT) - For all this land has to offer - fields, mountains, streams, even a registered cave system - Rocco Besednjak bought the 160 acres in rural Jackson County with one thing in mind: Healing.

“Once I was down here, you can just feel the weight lift off your shoulders,” Besednjak said, sitting around a campfire on a chilly winter morning. “You just automatically feel relaxed. You decompress just being out here. I knew it was a special place, and I wanted to be able to share it with other people.”

Besednjak, a former police officer, started Camp Hero in 2019 as a place for fellow first responders to escape.

The silence and sounds of nature they find at the camp serve as a stark contrast to a profession punctuated by noise.

Every day first responders find themselves in stressful situations, confronting the danger and trauma that most people want to avoid. But it often comes at a cost to those responders’ mental health - a price that has become even more evident as the pandemic drags on, as an already-stressful job has become even more stressful over the past two years.

“We’re losing first responders - especially in the past 24 months with the pandemic - just saying, ‘I’m done. I can’t deal with it anymore,’” said Mike Poynter, executive director of the Kentucky Board of Emergency Medical Services, or KBEMS.

Many are dealing with burnout, or worse: Post-traumatic stress, depression, even suicide.

At least 30 percent of first responders are estimated to develop conditions like depression and PTSD. For police, COVID-19 has been a leading cause of death for two straight years.

These are lasting impacts, experts say. And they all point to the increasing need for more mental health resources for first responders.

“We always thought it was just the military,” Poynter said of police, fire and EMS dealing with PTSD. “But with first responders, we’ve found through science we deal with a lot of the same physical and mental issues.”

But there is still a stigma surrounding it, and officials say some first responders are hesitant to reach out for help. Besednjak says they often open up, though, when they hear his story.

“I’ve lost friends to suicide because of mental health,” Besednjak told WKYT’s Garrett Wymer. “I’ve been there also, in the dark place.”

In 2016, as a police officer, Besednjak was run over and dragged 20 feet. Body camera video paints a picture of how violent the encounter was for him.

Unable to serve as a police officer any longer after being forced to medically retire, Besednjak says he really began to struggle.

“That’s when everything I’ve ever dealt with came to a head, and that’s when I started dealing with depression, PTSD and everything,” he said. “Because I felt like my identity had been taken away.”

Besednjak says going on a hunting trip with other first responders helped him - and sparked an idea that became Camp Hero. It gave him a new way to serve and helped him reclaim what he saw as his purpose.

Now he is taking it a step further.

Starting this spring Camp Hero is teaming up with Nature Reliance School, an organization founded in 2006 that teaches safety, survival and enrichment in the outdoors.

The partnership was Poynter’s brainchild, a way to bring the benefits of the outdoors to many in several professions who badly need a breath of fresh air.

“We’ve got the research backing us up, that being outdoors is good for all of us,” said Craig Caudill, director of Nature Reliance School. “So those that are hurting, those that are taking care of us, we wanted to be a part of doing whatever we can do to basically point people back to nature, which is part of all of us.”

Organizers expect a big response once the program gets rolling and first responders become more willing to get involved with it. They hope to see it serve as a model in other places, knowing there is still a large need for mental health resources specifically for first responders.

“You can sit here and just listen to the water and just relax,” Besednjak said, taking in one of his favorite parts of the Camp Hero property. “Look at the surroundings, look at the light reflecting off the rocks, look at the trees - and you completely forget everything that is stressing you in life.”

That is the goal: Providing a sanctuary to take care of those who often bear the burden - and the invisible scars - of caring for us.


If You Know Someone in Crisis:

Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Lifeline) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741).

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