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A Sense of Understanding - Building Bridges Blog

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Mission Outdoors


A Sense of Understanding

On 11/11/11, in Taos, New Mexico, veterans and citizens came together to observe a special Veterans Day. Hundreds of people attended the ceremony, which consisted of several speeches by political representatives, the Taos Mayor, Darren Cordova, and several veterans. The ceremony was touching and truly reached out to people’s hearts. I was very happy to have been invited to speak as a representative of the Sierra Club’s Mission Outdoors program. As Marine Corps veteran it was great to see Marine veterans at the event - it helped remind me of why I joined in the first place.

Mark 1
Mark Lemke speaking at 11/11/11 Ceremony in Taos, New Mexico


I was able to speak about my experiences in the outdoors and how it helped me. Below is an excerpt of my speech:


“It wasn’t until I came to the Sierra Club that I learned about the dismal situation of veterans coming back from war. Most people don’t know that nearly 20 veterans commit suicide every day. There were 30,000 suicides last year in the US and 20 percent of them were veterans. It’s estimated that 15 percent of veterans returning from combat have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and almost 20 percent have been diagnosed with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). That’s more than double the national average for non-veterans. In addition, many veterans also suffer from depression and substance abuse.         

Helping veterans assimilate back into civilian life is not just about doing the right thing.    It’s more a question of “Do you care about your community?”

Chances are you know a veteran. Veterans are coming home mentally and physically injured. Many of the suicides can be connected to PTSD and TBI, which severely affect the mental well-being of veterans. Let’s connect the dots here.

Growing up in Indiana, only 30 minutes from Chicago, I didn’t have much green space in my life. When I was 19 I was stationed at MCAS Cherry Point in North Carolina with the Marines. Almost halfway through my time at base I started taking trips out to Asheville, NC, to see my girlfriend at the time. I remember driving winding roads up I-40, where I never had seen mountains like that before in my life. When I left to return to base I felt something I hadn’t felt in awhile ­- peace. When life and work seemed overbearing, I knew the mountains were waiting.

There is one particular moment that resonates with me to this day. It just might be the defining moment when I fell in love with the outdoors. I was traveling up the Blue Ridge Parkway with a friend while relaxing in the passenger seat. We parked the car on the side of a scenic pull-off and I dozed off. When I woke up a short time later I saw clouds crawling over the mountain and dripping off the side like heated wax. I’d never seen anything like it before.”


My purpose was to let folks know that even with all the grim statistics, there is hope, and that hope is in their backyard, literally.

After the ceremony many stayed to help beautify the Plaza. Rocky Mountain Youth Corpsmembers and Sierra Club volunteers painted benches, curbs and the gazebo. Corpsmembers broke ground on a memorial tree which will go up in the spring.

 Rocky Mountain Youth Corpsmembers breaking ground for the Memorial Tree


I am grateful that I spent this Veterans Day outdoors serving the community in a beautiful mountain town surrounded by committed veterans and civilians.

 --Mark Lemke, Sierra Club Apprentice

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