SANTA FE, N.M. — I lived on Padre Island, Texas, during my formative years. I knew the names of all the plants, animals – vertebrates and non – the weather and best fishing and surfing spots. I surfed, ate and lived from the sea.
I served as an Air Force Munitions Specialist Staff Sergeant, with two deployments in service of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, and one year in Korea. Afterward, I spent nearly five years stateside under the influence of multiple, doctor-prescribed medications. One after another, I received each and every anti-depressant, anxiety and sleeping aid they offered. By 2012, my personal life had fallen apart, leaving me alone to deal with my moral injury.
This was a term I only learned about last year. My diagnosis of PTSD didn’t fit the textbook explanation. My job did not involve boots on the ground and I never had to shoot or be shot at. All I did was build bombs. None of us knew what happened when the planes came back empty. None of us even thought about it at the time.
So, like many veterans, I finally had to save myself, moving alone to Colorado and finding immediate solace in the mountains. It was quiet there, and so much bigger than my problems. I found myself after so long feeling alive and in the moment; I cried every day and every night while on an eight-day solo camping trip.
Responding to a call from a long-distant home I’d forgotten about, I walked through the woods I’d never seen and wandered like I did as a child, peering up at the stars. I was home alone and fine with it. It was the medication that I wanted and needed.
My experience led me to work closely with organizations dealing with conservation and threats to our lands. For most of us, the war, the fight and the need to serve never leave us. It wasn’t long after finding like-minded veterans here in Colorado that I once again found my purpose, my fight and a new sense of mission.
If someone had told me that I would return from my service to face a fight to protect the public land I have relied on for my personal and emotional health, I would have laughed. It is almost comical. Some members of Congress – some of them even veterans themselves – are proposing legislation to sell off America’s forests and recreation lands, block the president’s ability to designate new monuments, and gut the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the hugely successful program that has preserved the Flight 93 National Memorial, Civil War battlefields, national parks and forests, and local parks and trails in every county and in every state in the nation.
I’m not laughing anymore. In fact, I recently traveled with a delegation of veterans to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Congress to let them know that I see this as a serious, and offensive, assault on the very land I swore to protect.
During my visit, I emphasized the deep relationship between veterans and America’s landscapes – tens of thousands of American veterans visit public lands every year. These are the lands on which service members are able to hunt, fish, camp and, most importantly, heal as they transition from active duty. Service members have a unique understanding of the importance of protected public lands as a place for men and women to recreate after returning from strenuous military missions, to recover and reconnect with family and friends. I left Washington, D.C., with a positive feeling; my first experience talking with elected officials was a good one.
America’s national forests, wildlife refuges, parks and public lands are part of our national identity. That’s why our public lands should be protected, and open to everyone to experience and enjoy, not sold off to special interests.
Now, our powerful American idea of preserving our open spaces for current and future generations – defended by generations of bipartisan leaders and American soldiers – is under attack. Powerful special interests are encouraging our congressional leaders to sacrifice our most treasured parks, wilderness and wildlife areas, and national monuments for short-term economic gain. Public lands are one of our nation’s proudest and most sacred traditions, and a gift that we give to our children and grandchildren. As veterans, the protection of these special places is a promise that we cannot let this Congress walk away from.
Grant Wideman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He lives in Nederland, Colo., where he is an avid outdoorsman and naturalist.