Montana’s wilderness. That’s where my mind went to most often while I was deployed in southern Afghanistan as an explosive ordnance disposal operator in the summer of 2009. Some people missed their families, others had a sweetheart or spouse back home who they missed, and others just longed for a good meal and a comfortable bed.
But for me it was different. What I missed most were Montana’s wild open places.
In Afghanistan I quickly learned that the most important thing was the people fighting next to me. Getting killed was not my biggest fear. I was more scared of losing my brothers in arms. Any combat veteran can attest to this.
Nearing the end of my deployment, I lost my closest friend to an enemy attack. The regard I had developed for my fellow warriors was so ingrained in me that when this tragedy struck it crushed me. I experienced problems with anger, survivor’s guilt, and soldier’s heart (PTSD).
When I returned home the one place I truly found comfort was in the wilderness. It was familiar to me. The natural peace and solitude that occurs in wilderness was deeply therapeutic for me.
In 2011 I separated from the military. Even though I left the service behind, I didn’t stop caring for my fellow warriors. I believe the people I served with are the best people I will ever get the chance to know. For the past year, I’ve been able to do just that as the Veterans Outreach Coordinator for the Montana Wilderness Association. Through backcountry trips, stewardship projects, and educational opportunities, we are helping veterans connect with each other and Montana’s wilderness heritage, and preparing them for careers in conservation.
Wilderness has been a refuge for returning warriors for generations, so it’s no surprise that veterans have often been strong voices for wilderness and the freedom that it represents. World War II and Korean War veterans were instrumental in the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Fifty years on, there is new legislation in Congress that, if passed, could further protect the wild lands that many veterans fought for and treasure.
One of those bills is the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, introduced in 2010 by then-Sen. Max Baucus, now carried by his successor, Sen. John Walsh and co-sponsored by Montana’s senior senator, Jon Tester. If passed, this bill will include 67,000 acres of the Rocky Mountain Front in the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness areas. The bill will also include 208,000 acres of public land in a Conservation Management Area, a Montana-made designation that would keep the Front a working landscape just like it is, today. This bill enjoys widespread support from Montanans of all stripes, especially hunters like me who recognize that the Front is unlike anywhere else in the lower 48.
Daines should sign on
In 2013 Montanans elected Steve Daines to the U.S. House. Since then, Daines has proved again and again that he stands behind Montana’s veteran community. The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act is another chance for Daines to prove that commitment, but he has yet to put his skin in the game.
Wilderness makes up only 3 percent of Montana, but it makes a world of difference to Montana’s veterans.
One out of 10 Montanans has summoned the courage to serve our nation in the Armed Forces. I hope Daines can summon the courage to support the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. Montana’s veterans are watching.