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Healing With Nature: Combat veteran finds his ‘flow’ on forest preserve paths

A man stands on a trail in a forest preserve.
Nick Wallace is a frequent visitor of Hadley Valley Preserve. (Photo by Anthony Schalk)

This is the second story in a Healing With Nature series that focuses on Forest Preserve visitors who benefit physically and mentally from being in nature. 

Nick Wallace of Joliet has lived across from Hadley Valley preserve since 2019 and this year, when spring started to sprout and the weather got warmer, he couldn’t stand looking at all the litter lining his favorite preserve for one minute longer.

The 40-year-old former Marine sergeant took matters into his own hands in mid-March. Armed with trash bags and his favorite music, he started walking the preserve boundary and over several days and 24 hours of work, he filled up 70 trash bags.

Wallace said when he puts his mind to something, he must see it through.

Serving overseas

That same drive led him to enlist right out of high school after seeing the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. His decision to enlist sent him on a world tour after growing up in Springfield, Illinois. He said he wanted to be with the best, so he chose the Marines.

After basic training, and stints in Okinawa, where he worked as a landing support specialist supplying aircraft, and Camp Lejeune in North Carolina he said he had to "gear up" for deployment to Fallujah, Iraq. 

In Fallujah, he manned a machine gun on a truck to protect convoys during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The first day he arrived, shells were exploding all around the base. And during his tour a buddy died and the explosions never stopped. 

“Iraq was a combat zone, so we were mortared daily,” said Wallace, who was 21 at the time. “… It was traumatic mentally.”

After serving seven months in Iraq, Wallace went on to travel the world with his unit to Saudi Arabia, Ireland, Thailand, Australia and South Korea. But after four years with the Marines, he came home in 2007, went to college at Western Illinois University and worked with the park district in Macomb and at a phone company in Chicago.

But his time in Fallujah had taken its toll. Wallace returned home with medals and awards, including the Iraq Campaign Medal, Global War on Terrorism Medal and Sea Service Deployment Ribbon. But he also came home suffering from traumatic brain injury caused by combat explosions and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Overwhelming anxiety

During an interview at Hadley Valley, Wallace’s jaw muscles tensed when he talked about his Fallujah memories. But the veteran, who was wearing a Marine sweatshirt and close-cropped hair, smiled and the muscle tension eased when he talked about his time in nature, walking and biking, and what it means to him.

He first started having severe anxiety symptoms when he returned home after serving in the Marines and was attending college.

“It’s very overwhelming,” he said. “You don’t feel like going anywhere or interacting with anybody."

Hiking on the trails at a park near his college made a difference. 

"Walking on trails at Veterans Park would help bring my anxiety down and take my mind off stuff and let me relax,” he said. “That’s when I knew nature was a good thing for me."

Wallace received a home across from Hadley Valley preserve through the Building Homes for Heroes organization in 2019.

“I’ve been using the trail at Hadley Valley ever since,” he said.

He’s on the trail two to three times a week and walks and bikes the trail with his 11-year-old daughter, Autumn.

“If I’m having a bad day or if I feel any type of depression coming on, I like to get out and get some sun and just be out in nature,” he said. “The (Veterans Administration) tells you that all the time as a vet, get out and get some sun. Most of the guys, they’re inside too much and not getting enough Vitamin D.”

Being part of something

When he walks, he brings a plastic grocery bag with him to pick up trash on the trail.

“But this year, after winter and after the snow melted, it was just overwhelming to look at all the garbage,” he said. “Every day I would drive past it and say in my head, ‘I can’t believe how much garbage is out here. So, I went out there and I said, ‘I’m going to get it done.’”

Once Wallace started picking up the trash, he couldn’t stop until the mission was completed.

“I’m one of those people who, if I start something, I’m going to go until it’s finished,” he said.

He picked up cups, plates, cigarette packs, vape cartridges, bottles and more.

“A lot of it would crumble in my hand, so I would try to get as many little pieces as I could whether it would be the plastic bottles or Styrofoam plates.”

After picking up the trash at Hadley Valley, Wallace decided to become a Forest Preserve volunteer.

“It feels good to be a part of something,” he said. “And to be helping the preserves and helping nature and keeping it looking good. It’s good exercise, you’re doing beautification and it’s not only the place near where I live, it’s also a forest preserve. It brings gratification and a way to get away for a minute from the hustle and bustle.”

Finding your flow

Cleaning up the preserve brought Wallace a deep sense of satisfaction.

“You get in your flow and hours pass by and then you look back and say, ‘Wow, I just did all that, because you were just enjoying yourself in that moment.”

Wallace said he remembers reading a book in a parks and recreation class in college called, “Finding Your Flow" that talked about the pure enjoyment people feel during recreational activities. Wallace said he can shut his mind off when he's outside and find that joy. 

“That was a good book and that’s what I’m doing even when I’m picking up garbage,” Wallace said. “I’m just in my flow. You’re not really thinking about anything else. You’re just going.”

If you have a Healing With Nature story to tell, contact public information officer Cindy Wojdyla Cain at [email protected]

 

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