By Brian P.J. Cronin
Photo: Gretchen Steele
Mitch Serlin spent a total of 20 years serving in both the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division and the Westchester County police force, but one of the toughest battles he faced occurred after he retired and tried to assimilate back into civilian life.
“The military struggles with the transition process, because it’s a very different job than anything in the civilian world,” he said. Like many vets, Serlin found it difficult to go from a daily environment in which he was charged with protecting the lives of his colleagues and citizens to one in which he wasn’t. “You come out, and all of a sudden, you’re not part of it anymore,” he said. “It’s hard.” Or, as another vet whom Serlin got to know put it, “The military is really good at teaching you how to put the uniform on, but they’re not as good at teaching you how to take it off.”
Serlin found that talking to other vets helped ease him back into civilian life, but he had also been thinking about ways to get his stepfather, a disabled vet who wanted to go deer hunting, into the outdoors. Serlin had also worked in the hunting and fishing industry, and in trying to figure out ways to help his stepfather, he suddenly realized how he could make a difference in the lives of vets who were struggling with what he’d struggled with after retirement. “I wanted to do something for veterans, but I also wanted to include first responders,” he said. “Anybody who answers the call and puts themselves in harm’s way for others, I wanted to help them. And the best way that I could help them was in something that I had experience in, and that was getting guys back into the outdoors.”
With that, the Hope for Heroes Foundation was born in 2010 as a way to get veterans and retired first responders outside, together, on outdoor trips that vary from hunting to fishing to camping to kayaking to just getting outside for a barbecue. The trips take place here in the Hudson Valley, and there are longer excursions at Serlin’s hunting cabin on 1,600 acres of land down in Kentucky. The foundation is in the early planning stages of building a similar cabin in the Hudson Valley.
The trips give vets a chance to relax and talk to each other about their experiences. Serlin said it’s not about bagging a buck or reeling in a bass; it’s about what happens when you get out there and try. “It’s about being involved in something that you don’t have control of,” he said. “What individuals with PTSD struggle with is that we’re always taught to have control of everything. We don’t have control of the outdoors. But we learn that we can manage it. And it’s the same thing with PTSD. We don’t control it, but if you can manage it, it gives you a sense of control, even though you don’t really have it. That’s what being in the outdoors does.”
For more information, visit www.heroeshope.org. █