The Sierra Club’s Mission Outdoors hosted an amazing group of military spouses, caregivers, service members and veterans, as well as Sierra Club volunteers at YMCA of the Rockies on April 13th and 14th. We conducted listening sessions across the country begin learning about we needed to do as the Sierra Club, to better serve the military and veteran community. This was our final of three listening sessions this past year.
A series of final thoughts and reports on what we learned at the listening sessions and what we plan to do will be coming out in the next few weeks. For now, we’ll focus in on what we learned at the military spouse session.
First of all, one should never be surprised at the level of commitment and grace our military spouses and caregivers have for their service members, and yet, surprised we were. We intended to focus on military spouses. How could we, as the Sierra Club, support military spouses and caregivers? Yet time and time again, our participants kept bringing up ways in which we could work together to support the service members or military kids. Eventually we got down to the brass tacks of how we could provide support directly to caregivers and spouses, and that meant getting down to the brass tacks of supporting service members, veterans, and military kids. Not just their own families, but also all military families.
1. Empathy, not sympathy. Our military families, care givers, service members, and spouses are strong, resilient men and women. None of the men and women we met asked for sympathy or wanted sympathy. They wanted empathy, understanding, and support. It can be a fine line, but it’s one we need to walk carefully.
2. Opportunities, not hand outs. It has been said many times over by many other organizations and individuals more articulate than me. It does not need further explanation here.
3. Cultural differences. The cultural differences and how people live, ‘inside the gate’ and ‘outside the gate’ or in uniform and out of uniform are different and real, but not insurmountable.
Our facilitator, the indomitable Suz Hartung of Shifting Gears, Inc., instructed us to come up with a list of words that represented the positive things about the community or organization they represented: committed, passionate, patriotic, dedicated, service, hard working, strong, cooperative, leaders, and teamwork. We were surprised that we shared common language representing both communities. The room was charged up, people were laughing and felt good.
Next, we were asked to do the same thing, but with words we had associated with negative stereotypes of the groups we represented. The room became dark, people’s voices changed and words like unstable, broken, entitled, and angry came out of both groups. One of the military spouses, who would later in the weekend teach us that when working with service members who may have post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries, the key was to use an ‘extra measure of grace’, pointed out that:
“The good words are how both sides are every day, that’s the norm. The bad words represent only the extremes, and usually only the extremes of someone’s really bad day.”
For the rest of the weekend, as we sat and saw the late spring snow powder down amongst the Rockies, we kept those words in mind. We were far more similar than we were different and we knew we could get our mission done. It is an important lesson for the rest of America. We had a great weekend and our special thanks go to the YMCA of the Rockies who provided free lodging for our amazing guests; Blue Star Families, and Project Sanctuary who helped us recruit so many of the amazing spouses; and the Rocky Mountain Outings Group and staff who gave of their weekends to make not only the weekend happen, but future outings with our military and veteran community.
Finally, a big thanks to Larry Frederick, Chief of Interpretation and Education at Rocky Mountain National Park for spending time with our team and for 40 years of service to the American people and our lands.
~Stacy Bare, OIF Veteran
Military Families and Veteran Representative to the Sierra Club
"Helping America's Military and Veteran Community experience the freedom of the land they defend"