Paul Andersen: Zinke, a veteran, should know better
October 9, 2017
"Returning home from war or military service, veterans should have a first option of experiencing the great American wilderness to help heal any trauma associated with combat and overseas service."
Stacy Bare knows what he's talking about. He served in Iraq from 2006-07 as an Army captain where he received the Bronze Star for Meritorious Service. Bare now works on behalf of veterans for the Sierra Club helping to conserve wild public lands.
If only Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke, a former Navy Seal, would spend time in the wilds with Bare instead of cozying up to Donald Trump, he might realize that dismantling national monuments and pushing development on wildlands is not in the best interests of fellow veterans.
If Zinke spent time in the wilds with Bare, or with any of the thousands of veterans who have found peace and healing there, he might grasp the value those lands impart on the psycho-emotional health of the 1 percent who have served. Instead, Zinke equates public lands with a national cash register benefiting private enterprise.
"Even before we send in the psychiatrists and doctors," prescribes Bare, "a supported trip to the wilderness should be offered, if not mandated, within the first two to four weeks of a serviceperson coming home."
Zinke, acting on Trump's vengeance against predecessors Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, is hellbent on making that idea more difficult. By opening national monuments and wild public lands to development, Zinke harks to Gifford Pinchot, the utilitarian conservationist of over a century ago.
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Zinke, like Pinchot, foments the materialistic vision of public lands as a vast bank account whose holdings are to be raided now and by future generations. Zinke denigrates anyone who seeks wildness for higher spiritual or healing values as elitists.
Stacy Bare is joined by legions of veterans who are fighting a second front since their return home. These veterans hope to preserve the American legacy of wildlands for their brothers and sisters in arms.
"The land is what I fought for," wrote Bare in the "International Journal of Wilderness," describing a veteran who was jaded by his homecoming and the empty promises of fast food and Wal-Mart. It is the land that gives sustenance, not the stuff.
Many veterans come home feeling alienated from soft, self-centered American society. They choose not to reintegrate, writes Bare, because they lament that the "camaraderie, focus of mission, and physicality" of their military service "is simply lacking in the day-to-day American experience."
I know this to be the case with dozens of veterans I have served in the Huts for Vets program in the wilderness surrounding Aspen. They, like Bare, discover potent healing opportunities in wild nature.
"Words cannot express the impact this experience has had on my heart and soul!" wrote an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan reflecting on a Huts for Vets trip. "Wilderness therapy for combat vets is an incredible and innovative concept. What a journey! I have come further with braving my post-traumatic experiences in the last three days than I have in two years dealing with the VA."
"This was my first time in the wilds," said a Marine who served in Iraq, "and it was with the best group of veterans I've ever been with. Huts for Vets and my fellow warriors saved my life over the last three days together. Finding healing from all the things we've experienced could not have happened in a better place."
These and many other testimonials echo the thoughts and feelings of veterans who walk forest trails, stride mountain tops, explore deserts and savor peace, quiet and solitude — which is their due for sacrificing body, mind and spirit to the military-industrial complex.
Zinke's hostility toward wilderness preservation and his passion for plundering the commons does veterans a disservice by reducing their opportunities for discovering well-being in wild nature.
"Wilderness," writes Bare of his outdoor experiences, "is a way to continue the adventure, the mission and to be part of a team with a higher cause."
Zinke would best serve those most in need by taking heed of that higher cause, which may require that he first experience it himself.
Paul Andersen's column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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