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Author Doug Peacock

Author Doug Peacock speaks at the Western Heritage Center on Thursday.

Naturalist, filmmaker and author Doug Peacock clearly has a heart for young veterans returning home after being deployed in war zones. More than 45 years ago, he was one of them.

Peacock, who served during the Vietnam War as a Green Beret combat medic and returned home with what he called “my war sickness” before anyone had put the initials PTSD together, spoke on the 9/11 anniversary Thursday at the Western Heritage Center.

His talk was sponsored by the Montana Wilderness Association and recorded for later airing on C-SPAN.

A resident of Emigrant, Peacock is the author of the recently revised “In the Shadow of the Sabertooth: Global Warming, the Origins of the First Americans and the Terrible Beasts of the Pleistocene.”

But it was the immediate aftermath of his military service that he drew from during the first part of his hourlong talk, which he called “The Use of Ceremony and the Importance of Wilderness in Healing the Wounds of War.”

“My own unremarkable story started when I came back in March 1968,” Peacock said. “Like a lot of veterans, I was out of sorts. I always felt comfortable in the wilderness, I was no good around my family and I couldn’t talk to anybody, so I camped out — for a decade and a half.”

During that time and in the years to follow, Peacock latched onto the importance of creating and observing ritual in his life. When he embarked on an annual 140-mile hike in southern Arizona, he built a cairn halfway and stocked it over the years with artifacts that reminded him of his fallen comrades and his more recently deceased friends, including the writer Edward Abbey.

“It was a monument I built for fallen comrades — those I’d loved and lost,” he said. “War exposed raw nerve endings in me. I have to walk out there in the desert every year and leave it behind in that pile of rocks.”

Soon after his military service ended and he returned stateside, Peacock set up camp in Yellowstone National Park.

While soaking in warm springs one October day, he spied a sow grizzly and her two yearling cubs about 150 feet away.

“I didn’t know very much about grizzlies in those days,” he said, so he got out of the water and ran to a nearby tree — getting smacked in the head by a tree limb along the way, which opened up a gash on his forehead.

Despite the wooziness caused by the bleeding wound, he realized the tree he’d just climbed “was no taller than a Christmas tree. I was blue, naked and clinging to a Christmas tree. They came within 20 feet of me, but they never looked up. They were the first grizzlies to get my attention.”

Tracking grizzlies full-time for six months each year soon became his passion, and it eventually led him to write a pair of books about the bears, make a film about grizzlies and veterans called “Peacock’s War,” which aired on PBS’ “Nature,” and pen a memoir about his own healing process, “Walking It Off: A Veteran’s Chronicle of War and Wilderness.”

His most recent book, “In the Shadow of the Sabertooth,” took him seven years to write. The timeframe is about 13,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens first showed up in the Americas. Those late Pleistocene-era humans were dealing with something current ones are, he said — climate change. The book draws parallels between the two struggles, 13,000 years apart.

“I didn’t intend to write a story about global warming, because it’s a bummer story,” he said. “Global warming and human activity — over-hunting, in this case — are a deadly combination.”

Peacock described some of the now-extinct but at the time top-of-the-food-chain beasts in North America when those first Clovis people came to the Americas, including the short-faced bear that stood twice as big as a Kodiak bear. This bear traveled on legs the size of an NBA center and had olfactory capabilities so powerful it could smell a carcass 20 miles away.

“People could have come here anytime. They’d had the maritime technology for 50,000 years. They could have landed in Malibu” and lived off the plentiful fish there, Peacock said. But they stopped here instead.

“I try to explain the origins of the first Americans, because indeed it’s all of our stories — the origin of all people in this country,” Peacock said.

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.