Justin Russell is a disabled veteran who served in the US Army and completed three tours in Afghanistan. After his service, he worked for the US government’s Counterdrug Program and fought wildfires for the US Forest Service. After many years apart from his family, he now enjoys traveling in his Thor Motor Coach Hurricane with his wife Michelle, their kids, Jude and Jade, and the family pups, Dude and Belle.
RVing as a Disabled Veteran
A Q&A with Justin Russell
Justin and Michelle Russell
We’re the Russells, a family of four (plus two dogs) who have been traveling full-time in our RV for more than two years. But it wasn’t always this way.
I spent years in the U.S. Army, doing three tours in Afghanistan that kept me away from my family for more than 30 months. Even after I retired from the Army, my work in the Counterdrug Program and for the U.S. Forest Service continued taking me away from home. With each deployment, my physical and mental health suffered, and the kids felt a little more disconnected from their dad. I missed so many firsts with the kids and it only added to my growing depression. Every time I came home from deployment or for a break, I struggled with the transition back into civilian life.
We had built what I thought was a great life in California––solid careers, good schools for the kids, and a community of friends and family. But we found ourselves stuck in a monotonous cycle, with my work stress taking a toll on the whole family. We knew something needed to change, so we started searching for options that would break us out of our rut.
One evening as we stood around our unnecessarily enormous kitchen island, Michelle (half) joked, “Let’s just get an RV and figure it out.” Like most jokes, it contained a kernel of truth, and soon we found ourselves purchasing an RV, selling all our belongings and hitting the road. We had no prior RV experience, but we gave ourselves a year to travel and figure it out. Being together on the road has allowed us to finally unite as a whole. One of the best memories was when our son said, “Isn’t it awesome that Daddy doesn’t have to leave us anymore?” RVing has also allowed us to address my mental and physical health in a way that feels really positive and natural. I’d recommend it to any other veterans who think this way of life might be right for them.
What are your disabilities and how do they affect the way you travel in your RV?
From my time in service, I deal with both physical disabilities and mental health challenges. My injuries include collar bone separation, five herniated discs, tinnitus and an arthritic knee; my mental health has been affected by PTSD, depression, anxiety, flashbacks and more. When we started RVing, we towed a travel trailer, but the labor of setting up, taking down and moving triggered my physical injuries. Eventually, we switched to a Class A motorhome. Now, setup takes less than ten minutes and requires less labor.
As for my mental health, we love meeting new people and being part of a group, but at times we also prefer to boondock alone and the Hurricane is perfect for camping off-grid. We’ve also found being open with our community and our friends about mental health issues has been beneficial in both taking the space we need and educating the people we love about symptoms associated with mental illness.
What features of your current RV are most helpful in living with your disabilities?
The LCI auto-leveling system has been such a game-changer for us. It eliminates almost all the physical labor of setting up. Our first rig required me to get out and level each area of our travel trailer manually. For most people, that wouldn’t be a problem, but for people with disabilities or injuries, it can take a toll. Now, with the press of a button, the LCI auto-leveling system does everything on its own.
Another feature I love in our Class A motorhome are the large captain chairs. They’re so comfortable, they really cut down on aches and pains during long drives. Plus, I’m the big guy on the road now; our 22,000 pound Class A handles like a dream. The 360-degree cameras allow me to move in and out of traffic with ease and I can park my rig just about anywhere without assistance.
What kinds of RVing-related discounts and benefits are available to veterans?
A lot of private parks offer veterans and active duty military 10% off their stay. As of November 2020, all federal recreation areas are free to anyone who has served in the U.S. Armed Forces, plus Gold Star Families (next of kin to service members who lost their lives in the line of duty, in short). These federal recreation areas include all the national parks, wildlife refuges, national forests and lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. State parks also offer free admission for veterans or active duty military members and families, but qualifications vary by state. While the free park pass will get you and your family admitted to federal lands for free, disabled veterans can also receive 50% off the cost of campgrounds within national parks.
Many small businesses offer veterans and active military members discounts and other perks, like premium campsites, at no extra cost. And if you need to make any repairs or optimizations on the road, Lowes and Home Depot also offer a discount for all military veterans and active duty military members.
What are the best resources for discovering or researching new benefits?
Some of our go-to resources to find forms, documents and mental health assistance are available through VA.gov, and ebenefits.va.gov. EBenefits can assist individuals starting their disability claim, helping them find out what they are eligible for. It has information regarding housing, continuing education and specialized healthcare, including locating a medical professional wherever you happen to be that week. If you plan on being in a state for longer than a few weeks, you can visit a local VA clinic where they can transfer all your data to allow you to receive services there. Within the RV community, you’ll find a lot of veterans at campgrounds. Just sitting back and chatting with them is a great way to network and to discover things you may not know about.
What features do you look for in campgrounds or attractions that make it more accessible or easy to manage with your disability?
Some of our favorite features include good, level pull-thru sites. If it’s possible, we like to be away from chaos and commotion, so we enjoy sites that are toward the back of campgrounds, or that back up to a forest or river. This allows me to self-isolate if need be, and I can sit comfortably outside with our dogs without interruptions. And of course, we love any parks that have a hot-tub, which is a balm to old, aching injuries after a long travel day. If you’re unsure if a campground can make certain accommodations for your disability, just ask. We have always found campground hosts and other businesses to be extremely helpful when we just ask for the accommodation we need.
What do you want other people with disabilities to know about RVing?
Just do it. Don’t let anything hold you back. There are specialized companies that work with individuals who have various disabilities to help them adapt their surroundings. For veterans, the military will help pay for these adaptations. We have friends who have had wheelchair lifts added, or put in safer stairs with handrails allowing them to access their RV more easily. Plus the RV community is so accommodating, so many times, strangers and friends come out to help us set up when I’m not physically able to.
Also, most campgrounds have sites that are reserved for individuals with a disability. These sites are sometimes larger and are closer to amenities. In most cases, all you have to do is call and reserve that spot at no additional charge. If you’re worried about hitting the road and not having access to mental health professionals, everything is now accessible through Telehealth. Telehealth has allowed us to gain access to mental health providers from the comfort of our smartphones, which really opens up a whole new world of care on the road.
What do you want other veterans to know about RVing?
There are a ton of opportunities for all kinds of veterans, even if the VA hasn’t designated you 100% disabled. You can often find camp host positions where you can make money and get a free space to live––they’re recruiting veterans all the time.
RVing has been the most freeing and healing experience I could’ve ever received. Being able to slow down and live in the moment has allowed me to feel less constantly overwhelmed. And while RVing has not healed me completely, it has brought tremendous relief.
For instance, when I’m looking up at the night sky with my son beside me and we can see the Milky Way, pain is the furthest thing from my mind. I can finally spend time with my family, watching my children enjoying the life that Michelle and I worked hard to give them. All these moments we’re blessed with now are because of the sacrifices I had to make when we were away from each other. So we make the most of perks and programs for veterans to help us make up for lost time.