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Veterans appreciate Montana's wilderness


Last updated 4/7/2014 at 4:15pm

Montana’s wilderness. That’s where my mind went to most often while I was deployed in Southern Afghanistan as an explosive ordnance disposal operator in the summer of 2009. Some people missed their families, others had a sweetheart or spouse back home whom they missed, and others just longed for a good meal and a comfortable bed.

But for me it was different. What I missed most were Montana’s wild open places.

In Afghanistan I quickly learned that the most important thing was the people fighting next to me. Getting killed was not my biggest fear. I was more scared of losing my brothers in arms. Any combat veteran can attest to this.

Nearing the end of my deployment, I lost my closest friend to an enemy attack. The regard I had developed for my fellow warriors was so ingrained in me that when this tragedy struck it crushed me. I experienced problems with anger, survivor’s guilt and soldier’s heart — post-traumatic stress disorder.

When I returned home the one place I truly found comfort was in the wilderness. It was familiar to me. The natural peace and solitude that occurs in wilderness was deeply therapeutic for me.

In 2011 I separated from the military. Even though I left the service behind, I didn’t stop caring for my fellow warriors. I believe the people I served with are the best people I will ever get the chance to know. For the past year, I’ve been able to do just that as the veterans outreach coordinator for the Montana Wilderness Association. Through backcountry trips, stewardship projects and educational opportunities, we are helping veterans connect with each other and Montana’s wilderness heritage, and preparing them for careers in conservation.

On March 18, the White House honored our efforts by naming me a champion of change for engaging the next generation of conservation Leaders. Receiving this award was very humbling, and it has inspired me to work even harder to introduce fellow veterans to Montana’s pristine wild places. Wilderness has meant so much to me and I know it can mean the same to other veterans.

Wilderness has been a refuge for returning warriors for generations, so it’s no surprise that veterans have often been strong voices for wilderness and the freedom that it represents. World War II and Korean War veterans were instrumental in the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Fifty years on, there is new legislation in congress that if passed could further protect the wild lands that many veterans fought for and treasure.

One of those bills is the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, introduced in 2010 by then-Sen. Max Baucus, and now carried by his successor, Sen. John Walsh and cosponsored by Montana’s senior senator, Jon Tester. If passed, this bill will include 67,000 acres of the Rocky Mountain Front in the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness areas. The bill will also include 208,000 acres of public land in a Conservation Management Area, a Montana-made designation that would keep the Front a working landscape just like it is today. This bill enjoys widespread support from Montanans of all stripes, especially hunters like me who recognize that the Front is unlike anywhere else in the lower 48.

In 2013 Montanans elected Steve Daines to the United States House of Representatives. Since then Congressman Daines has proved again and again that he stands behind Montana’s veteran community. The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act is another chance for Daines to prove that commitment, but he has yet to put his skin in the game.

Wilderness makes up only 3 percent of Montana, but it makes a world of difference to Montana’s veterans.

One out of 10 Montanans has summoned the courage to serve our nation in the Armed Forces. I hope Congressman Daines can summon the courage to support the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. Montana’s veterans are watching.

(Tristan Persico lives in Missoula. For more information on MWA’s Veteran Outreach Program or to sign up for an all expenses paid veteran backcountry outing, contact him at [email protected].)


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