At 8:45 AM on Tuesday, May 1, 2012, seven veterans, two National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) instructors and one Army wife trod out of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness in the Gila National Forest near Silver City, NM. It was the first trip of its kind, combining Sierra Club Mission Outdoors and NOLS to teach wilderness ethics, skills, and leadership to participants who heard about the trip from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), and Operation Free.
The seven day trip was made possible through the generosity of the Sierra Club Foundation and brought together an incredibly diverse group. Well, at least it looked like a diverse group. We had every branch of service minus the Coast Guard represented. Wounded warriors, a retired Navy Commander, active duty Air Force, Marine Reservist, National Guard; men and women, and a few Army veterans who represented a slice of the African American, Latino, Native American, and Caucasian experience in the United States. More than half the group had not backpacked or camped before.
And yet, it was not such a diverse group. Everyone was purple in the tradition of our Joint Missions at the Department of Defense (purple is the term used to describe missions where multiple branches are cooperating together) Soon enough, everyone would have a bit of the same colored dirt rubbed in on their clothes, knees, and even hair. Conversations began easily and were focused at first around shared military themes: deployment stories, the ones we lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, our families, our hopes, our dreams, and why we each got out or stayed in.
Soon though, we discussed some of the weightier things in life: how to make blueberry pancakes in the woods, the right way to make Mexican cornbread and mole in one pot, whether or not Sasquatch would meet height and weight standards, and which kinds of sticks and stones make the best toilet pa…well you get the idea.
As we walked up to the top of McKnight Peak and looked out on America’s first designated wilderness around us, we took a moment of silence to think about those we wished could have walked with us on the trail: our families, other veterans and service members, and the fallen, through war, suicide, age, or illness. As we solemnly folded the flag back up after a group photo on the mountain peak, for a brief moment you could see the hundreds gathered round that worked daily to keep that mountain top safe and free for us to climb.
Five organizations plus our fantastic land managers at the United States Forest Service worked together to create a place where camaraderie, mission, and sense of purpose combined outside of the uniform to not only welcome our veterans home, but give them the skills to take their friends, families, and units safely outside. For those of you from an Army back ground, you can think of it as a week-long Sergeant’s Time for outdoor living.
This was not the first trip of veterans into the outdoors, nor was it the first trip that the Sierra Club put together to get our military and veteran community outside. We have nearly 50,000 members of that community that we helped to get outside directly since 2006.It was, however, the first outdoor leadership training expedition for our military and veteran community that combined so many different organizations to get the job done. It will certainly not be the last. This is the next step in our journey towards facilitating the creation of strong outdoor leaders who come from the military and veteran community. America needs you to help get outside, and the wilderness is waiting!
See you on the trail!
~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"
Special thanks to Army Spouse Acacia Elkins for many of the fantastic photos above!