Students who attend Western Colorado University have their own stories on how they found this school located deep in the Rocky Mountains.
“I discovered [Western] after moving to the Gunnison Valley in the fall of 2015,” Otero said. “I actually had no intention of returning to school after my military service ended. However, once I uncovered my own need [and] desire for additional life learning, I began to explore what college would look like for me.”
Otero served in the Air Force for 12 years, including combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I did not begin my relationship with Western in a traditional way,” Otero said. “My first semester of real college was actually a NOLS Rocky Mountain Outdoor Educator semester that I took through the Extended Studies Department in the fall of 2016. After that semester, I was tasked with writing around 8,000 words related to my experience and growth. I titled that paper, ‘NOLS – My civilian basic training.’ During those 90 days spent living in the field and working through austere environments with a team that was a full decade younger than [me], I was forced to learn and grow in ways that I had not thought of in a long time.”
The relationship that started between Otero and Fast was unconventional.
“I discovered Dr. Fast through conversation with Dr. Lance Dalleck in the ESS [Exercise & Sport Science] Department,” Otero said. “My initial research ideas led him to recommend her as a person I should be learning from and working with. Dr. Dalleck was right, and after sending her a random email requesting a meeting, our professional relationship began. She has since taken me under her wing to assist my crafting of IRB [Institutional Review Board] proposals as well as teaching me the capabilities of the equipment we have [available] here on campus.”
Fast was thrilled when she received an email from Otero and was soon able to begin working with him.
“Steve is an amazing human, passionate about his cause to help those suffering,” Fast said. “He has a voracious appetite for the cause, such that I know he will be successful in changing the world, even if one person at a time. He inspires me to do better.”
Otero and Fast are researching observed hormonal changes in military members who were wounded and who are now exposed to nature-based activities.
“From hiking in the woods, to meditation, to yoga, to austere backcountry expeditions, we hope to learn about how and why these activities change the participants and afford a layer of scientific credibility to the organizations providing these opportunities for military veterans,” Otero said. “This type of research has broad implications on not only the military community, but the entire first-responder community as well.”
Otero believes that this nature-based therapy will work as well for some as pharmaceuticals.
“The ultimate goal is to influence policy regarding medical treatment options offered as a ‘first line’ defense to military veterans. Prevention is medicine and we believe that by focusing on the whole health of military members prior to engaging in high stress activities, we can actually save the American taxpayer money as well as enhancing the overall strength of the military,” Otero said.
Otero’s goal is to provide as many choices of care for people as possible.
“The more we can provide a buffet of options for a person that really wants to take care of themselves, to recover from injury, to reduce their potential for high cholesterol, depression along with others, [for veterans] to have an [array] of therapeutic options that are proven to work, is part of the point of what I am doing. We are all so different, nature-based therapy may not be the answer for everyone, and that is OK. I understand that. However, I want to prove at least, that this type of option [will work for some]. I want to prove its efficacy for folks that do choose this,” Otero said.
Being a veteran himself, Otero hopes that he can provide a unique perspective and give back to his fellow servicemen and women. Otero and Fast are looking to be able to work eventually with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA).
“There are a lot of nonprofits that exist nationwide that are willing to allow us in to their organization to preform collection, however our ultimate goal is to get our foot in the door with the VA, because then we can directly access the patient population that we hope to provide advice to in the future,” said Otero.
Fast is thrilled with Otero’s work and happy to be a part of it.
“Steve is going to be one of the most successful individuals Western ever produces,” Fast said. “I know this and hope we work hard to serve him and the cause in the best way we possibly can.”
Otero began studying about nature-based therapy due to his passion for the topic, and he urges others to do the same.
“I would encourage any student, veteran or not, to look at how to best leverage their college experience to benefit their overall sense of life satisfaction,” said Otero. “One of the greatest challenges I see as a leader is assisting people with monetizing a dream or passion. Especially college students who are working towards discovering their dreams. It can be an extremely difficult practice to self-evaluate and identify specific desires that could be monetized. My sheer curiosity is what leads me to study hormones and the brains of wounded military veterans. And monetizing that curiosity is part of my current professional efforts. While difficult to ‘live the dream,’ it is far from impossible and more than likely easier to attain than one may think. Worry and fear prevent people from taking action. When a person manages their fear, they can do anything. They can achieve their dreams and even get paid for it.”
Story by Caitlin Gleason.