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What I learned from Mission Outdoors’ Military and Veteran Listening Sessions

At 17, I dropped out of high school and lived on the streets.  I had a pink (or blue, or orange, or green) Mohawk, multiple facial piercings and wore lots of black. “Squids” (what we called people in the Navy) regularly terrorized and beat me because Orlando punks and Navy members were at war. I don’t know how it started or when, but I know I did not like military because of the number of beatings I took. I was anti-military and anti-American. I had no purpose, no passion and no future.

One quarter of a century later, I am working with volunteers and staff on an initiative to bring the military population into the outdoors as leaders and participants. A lot of things changed me in those 25 years and a lot about me changed in those years: I have a Masters Degree, I own a house, I don’t hate America nor the military and so much more. I won’t get into the details, but the outdoors saved my life. I have passion, purpose and a mission – things that nature and outdoor leadership gave me.

We embarked on this mission to bring active and retired Military folks into the outdoors by hosting listening sessions. I anticipated learning a lot of new things about a population so foreign to me. I thought I’d learn about differences between the Sierra Club and the Military and how to make them less of an issue. I was blown away! I learned that there is not as much difference between our populations as I originally believed. Turns out we are all just people.

And it turns out that I am a member of the military family. My dad is a Vietnam Vet – Drill Sergeant at Fort Ord (now a National Monument). My partner served 8 years in the Air Force; his son is currently serving in the Marines and is stationed at 29 Palms. My stepfather is a World War II Vet and my first cousin served in the Army.

I learned that some of the recent returning Vets might be a lot more like the teenage me. Some of them lack purpose, passion or direction since leaving their unit, their military job, and their identity. They might find the outdoors and outdoor leadership as a new opportunity to lead and serve outside of the military while finding meaning and purpose.

If we do this well, we might even be able to provide community for the transient active military people. No mater where they are stationed in the US, they will likely be near a Sierra Club Chapter or group. How cool would it be if they knew they had local outings available to them and their families to help them get to know the area and the people? And if they were certified leaders, they could lead for the chapter/group too! We all need more leaders.

During our listening session with partners and care givers – I gained some insight about my relationship and the man I share my life with. One of the things they helped me understand is my partner’s need for organization and the frustrations he’s had with some of the leaders in our local outings group. It became clear to me why some leadership styles appealed to him and why others simply did not. I learned that he needs full details to really understand things, so I’m learning to give him 5 paragraph op orders when I plan a weekend for us.

Turns out, I can’t make sweeping generalizations about this group of people. Admittedly, I assumed that all service members would want to become outdoor leaders. I learned quickly that just like civilians – some want to lead and others want to be led. I learned that some of the military population would like to do outdoor activities with other mil/vet members and some would like to go outside with a variety of people. Some want to use outings as a way to reintroduce themselves to civilian life or keep them in touch with it. Some of the mil/vet folks would desire a more authoritative leader and others would enjoy a more democratic leader.  Some of the mil/vet folks expressed an interest in extreme sports with extreme risks, while others thought a simple day hike close to home and with their family would suit them just fine. No different from the rest of us. No different at all.

I learned that some of the mil/Vet folks are young, some old, some black, others white and others brown. Some are women and some are men. They are married, divorced and single. Some have children and others do not. Some are Democrats and others are Republicans. Some of them are environmentalists, while some of them just love being outside. Some have outdoor skills and others want to learn.

If I were to name the one thing they all had in common, I’d say service. They believe in serving their country and they believe in serving their fellow Americans. I think that’s something all of our Sierra Club leaders and volunteers could find in common with this group – just like I did.

An eloquent participant told us, “You don’t need to have all the answers, just have an extra measure of grace.”  During one of the sessions, one of the vets paused often when he spoke - pauses lasting 30 seconds to a minute long. 35 people sat patiently while he collected his thoughts. Not one person interrupted, not one person tried to fill the silence. That moment, those moments left me in awe.

How awesome would it be if we all displayed such grace to one another? I try to remember that lesson each day as I move about the world. I like to think that I’ve become a little more patient, a little more accepting and a little more graceful. As we move forward on bringing this population (and any other population) into the Sierra Club and into Outings specifically, I hope we use that “extra measure of grace.”

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