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How Outdoor Recreation Can Heal: Josh Hansen, Founder of Continue Mission

Josh Hansen, a retired U.S. Army sergeant, has been bringing veterans to ski with Ogden Valley Adaptive Sports (OVAS) since 2018. His group is known as Continue Mission, which is a non-profit that Josh founded to help veterans heal from injuries ranging from physical to emotional.

Josh knows first-hand the struggles that many veterans face. After two tours in Iraq as an IED hunter and 125 combat missions, Josh was directly hit eight times. The culmination of blasts left him with multiple traumatic brain injuries and lasting damage to his neck and back. The years that followed were, as he describes, dark, and despite the love and support from his family, he fell into depression and contemplated suicide.

I caught up with Josh (who’s turning 51 this year) to learn more about his remarkable recovery and what keeps Continue Mission coming back to ski with OVAS.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Can you tell me about your path to healing after you were discharged from the military? What were the things that helped you the most?

Josh: For me, I was going down that dark road a lot of veterans go through. After one of my fellow veterans died by suicide, that was my wake-up call. Depression can take control of your life. And you can either let it take control, or you can work really hard to fight it. You have to fight the demons. Your mind will really play a lot of tricks on you when you’re just sitting at home alone stewing on things, and if you continue, that hole just gets too deep.

I was overweight so I started eating healthier, which gave me more energy. Then, I’d do a simple mile walk around my neighborhood, which was extremely difficult to go do. But I never regretted it. When I came back through the front door, I would say to myself, “I’m so glad I did that.” When I felt like I didn’t want to leave the house or do anything, I would force myself to go walk, even if it was only a mile, because I knew it would improve my mental health.

Q: When you started Continue Mission in 2014, what did you hope for?

Josh: My main goal was to get veterans who were in my position, feeling the way I did, out of that dark tunnel. I felt if I could motivate others to follow my path, lives would be saved. I did not want to lose another soldier to suicide. We designed Continue Mission after my recovery. So, what was healthy to me?  Going on walks, going on hikes, going mountain biking, going paddleboarding. Now we take veterans out to do over 22 different activities and I’ve had to learn them all after the age of 40. It’s proof you’re never too old!

Q: You learned to ski at 40. Can you tell me why and what that was like?

Josh: For me, winters were horrible. That was my most depressing time. Everything’s always dark. It’s cold, miserable. To counter winter, I started snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and then alpine skiing. For me, it was just, why not? Let’s give this a try. I slowly progressed from the pizza wedge to being able to ski and hockey stop. I really enjoyed the sensation of gliding down the mountain. At that time, I couldn’t be super physical because of my brain injury and because I was trying to get my body back in shape. It was really nice to glide down the mountain at my own pace and enjoy myself. I got some veterans who I served with in Iraq out skiing and enjoying it. And that’s what really made it fun.

Q: There are a lot of adaptive sports programs. Why and how did Continue Mission connect with Ogden Valley Adaptive Sports?

Josh: I reached out to Ogden Valley Adaptive Sports in 2018 and asked them if they’d be interested in helping our veterans and I told them how we wanted to run things. We have veterans who want to learn to ski and we have veterans who need adaptive equipment. We also have veterans who can already ski and snowboard and just want to go out and enjoy the mountain. We wanted that freedom to go to the mountain and enjoy ourselves and Ogden Valley Adaptive Sports gave us that option.

Q: There was a group that skied with Ogden Valley Adaptive Sports twice a month this past winter. What do those participants like about skiing with OVAS?

Josh: Our veterans absolutely love the staff at OVAS. They work with our veterans and make them feel a part of the family. To do that, you’ve got to have an organization that’s like a family as well. We’ve dealt with other organizations that just don’t have that feel, so I’ll move on and try finding someone that has that connection with us. We had a visually impaired vet ski with OVAS last year. We’ve had veterans who used the ski bike. We’ve had a lot of veterans learn how to ski through OVAS. It’s been huge for them because normally they wouldn’t be able to go out skiing.

Q: Is there something special or healing about alpine skiing?

Josh: I think for a lot of our veterans it has given them confidence, which is a huge thing. Once they start learning, I see the ear-to-ear smiles and they get excited. We had a veteran who didn’t ski but her husband did. So, he would always go skiing without her. We got her in our organization and she learned to ski and now they go together. It’s been so healing for them.

Skiing is also about the camaraderie. You’re riding on that chairlift together, going up the mountain, and you have all that time to talk to each other. It’s a neat sensation as well—just that freedom of going down the mountain and enjoying yourself. For me and a lot of veterans, when you ski you have to be in the moment so your brain can’t be wandering into all the depressing stuff. When you get to the bottom of the mountain, you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, that was complete freedom!” That’s so refreshing for an individual who never leaves the house or isn’t doing those types of things.

Q: How do you know that Continue Mission is having a positive effect?

Josh: Generally, you know because at the beginning of an event, veterans aren’t smiling, or they’re feeling a little nervous about being there. By the end of the event, they’re all laughing, having a great time and can’t wait for the next event. We’ve had so many veterans tell us, “I owe my life to your program because I was going down that dark road.”

We even had one veteran break down and share with me how they wanted to ski one last time before dying by suicide. But after skiing, they said that everyone had been so amazing that they knew that suicide wasn’t the answer.

When I started the organization, I said if we can just save one person from suicide, that’ll be huge. And we’ve had so many report to us that Continue Mission has been life changing.

Q: How else can OVAS support veterans and their families and Continue Mission?

Josh: Getting summer activities! During the winter, OVAS does a fabulous job. It’s just been great for our organization, and we can’t thank them enough for taking care of our veterans.

Q: Memorial Day is approaching. What does the holiday mean to you? Will you do anything special to honor your comrades?

Josh: I lost men in combat in the first part of February and naturally my body starts tanking during that time. Those days are harder on me. As for Memorial Day, a lot of people say it’s not for barbecues or things like that. What I tell a lot of veterans who are never leaving the house or getting out and doing things is, you know the six men who died during combat with me? They would do anything to have their lives back and go on a hike, go on a bike ride, go paddleboarding. So I need to respect my fallen soldiers by living my life to the fullest because they can’t. They’re not there for their families. They’re not there for their kids. The men that died with me were all under the age of 22. You know how mad they’d be at me if they saw me doing absolutely nothing right now?! That’s kind of what Memorial Day is for me. I lower the flag, and then by noon, I raise that bad boy back up to say, we are going to remember you and we’re going to keep driving on and living to the fullest for your sacrifice.

Q: What advice do you have for people struggling to put their lives back together after a traumatic experience, or struggling with depression?

Josh: First, seek professional help. Second, nobody can cure you. Everybody thinks there’s a magic pill out there, and there isn’t. You have to put forth the work and the effort to get out and make things happen. When I first started Continue Mission, I wanted to save the world. I started to learn that not everybody wants to be saved. There were people that I just couldn’t get out to do anything. Until that veteran or that individual with the mental health issues or whatnot wants to progress and push forward, you can talk till you’re blue in the face. You just can’t force them to do anything. They really have to want it.

Q: Is there anything else that comes to mind that you want to share that I didn’t ask you about?

Josh: A big part of my healing was my family and friends around me. I think a lot of times people forget about the family members. To me, it’s very important to remember that they served just as much as we did. My wife went through so much during my recovery. She was a senior scientist for crying out loud. She had an incredible job and then she had to quit that job to take care of me. So, in our organization, we love getting the family and support members out with the veteran.