Montana Voices: Veterans decry Trump’s reduction of national monuments

We write today as Montanans and American combat veterans to express our strong opposition to Secretary Ryan Zinke and President Trump’s plans, announced in Utah on Monday, to eliminate parts of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments.

It is well known that Montana has among the highest number of veterans per-capita in the nation. What is less understood is how important America’s public lands are to veterans as they work to transition to life at home after serving in combat overseas.

By sharing a few of our stories, we hope to illustrate why Secretary Zinke and President Trump’s planned rollback of public lands is a mistake and will make it harder for other veterans to truly come home from their service overseas. We hope a veteran like Ryan Zinke hears us out.

Diane Carlson Evans; Capt., U.S.  Army Nurse Corps 1966-72; Vietnam 1968-69 

I returned to our family dairy farm in 1969, after a year in Vietnam as a combat nurse in two field hospitals. My body was at home but my heart and my head was still in Vietnam. I went from ceaseless noise in the skies overhead jammed with helicopters, fighter jets and supply aircraft, sounds of incoming and outgoing mortar rounds to the desperate cries of the wounded.

I hadn’t really come home yet.

I woke in the night and walked aimlessly outside over our fields and tried to convince myself that I was safe. I sought counseling at a Vet Center. Yet, during these 48 years I have discovered that my ultimate healing is found in the solitude of the wilderness –absorbing its infinite beauty while hiking, cross-country skiing and rafting its rivers.

Jonas Rides at the Door; Corporal, U.S. Marine Corps 2003-2007; three Iraq tours 

When you’re deployed, all you can think of is getting home. But when I came home, all I could think about was my time deployed. The friends I lost. The death I witnessed.

Serving as an infantryman with the Marine Corps in Fallujah, Iraq is something you never forget. At first I turned to alcohol for salvation. Then, I found a path that led me back home – and that path crossed through Montana’s public lands.

Sometimes I’d spend time alone in the Rocky Mountain Front. You can’t understand the magic of the place unless you’ve been there. It’s still a wild, unpredictable place. The place– still wild and undeveloped – helped me reconnect with the land.

Of course, I wasn’t the first to find peace of mind in these lands. These are lands my ancestors have used to find peace of mind since time immemorial. And when I reconnected with the land as my ancestors did, I found myself.

Tyler Gence; Capt., U.S. Army Medical Service Corp;  Iraq 2004-2005

I was not prepared for the human tragedy I saw as a Medical Platoon Leader serving in Iraq. The death and injury I witnessed was heartbreaking. When I returned home, I sought out America’s wilderness as a means of processing my war-time experiences.

I set out along the Pacific Crest Trail in search of peace and solace, and I found it. It took months of walking through beautiful, pristine, undeveloped wilderness, national forests, national monuments and national parks before I began to feel normal again. I’m grateful for the gift of open land that our former leaders bestowed upon me and future generations.

In my experience, there was no better post war therapy than walking among America’s western mountains and forests.

Andrew Person; Capt., 173rd Airborne Brigade; Iraq 2003-2004; Afghanistan 2005-2006  

To get through the U.S. Army’s grueling Ranger school, you have to find a way to help your squad succeed. As an artillery officer with little experience with small unit infantry tactics, I knew from day one that I’d better find a way to add value, and I found it in the mountains outside of Dahlonega, Georgia: I had a talent of carrying a lot of weight on my back for long distances.

This was a skill I developed as a smaller than average Boy Scout during week-long backpacking trips through the mountains of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Years later I relied upon the time I spent trudging across Montana’s public lands while hunting Taliban fighters in the mountains of Afghanistan or parachuting into Northern Iraq. Montana’s public lands literally saved my life – I honestly don’t know if I would have come back from combat alive without them.

This piece has been signed by Montanans and military veterans Diane Carlson Evans, Jonas Rides at the Door, Tyler Gence, and Andrew Person. To continue the dialogue about the importance of public lands to Montana veterans, Montanans for National Security will be hosting a wild game cookout on December 7, 2017, at Playfair park in Missoula from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. All veterans, their family and friends are welcome to attend.