A Veteran Of The Iraq War Finds Healing, And A New Sense Of Purpose, Among America’s Wildlands

Originally posted to SierraClub.org | June 7, 2016

Garett Reppenhagen of the Vet Voice Foundation talks about America the beautiful.

BY GARETT REPPENHAGEN

We were covered in what felt like the dust and sweat of a thousand years when our sniper team stopped off at Camp Anaconda, a main supply post north of Baghdad, on our way back to the forward operating base. It was 2004, the height of the Iraq War, and we had just completed a three-day mission in the Diyala River Valley, an insurgent stronghold. Anaconda offered luxuries we didn’t have at our own small outpost—air conditioning, decent food—and my fellow soldiers and I were glad for a break from the fighting. As we waited for the chow hall to open, some of us kicked back in the massive PX, while others went for a swim at one of the base’s pools. I headed to the theater to try to forget about the war for a while.  

When the lights dimmed, the national anthem began to play, as it always does before a movie on a military base. Typically, the anthem is accompanied by a kind of military-recruiter highlight reel: images of tanks smashing over berms and jet fighters taking off from aircraft carriers. But this time was different. Instead of the sights of war, we were given scenes of peace: a slideshow of national parks and monuments. In the flickering light, I could see some fellow service members tearing up. I felt it, too—a wave of pride and homesickness as landmarks like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite’s El Capitan scrolled past. These public lands were part of my identity as an American. These were the lands that I loved, and they represented everything that I had sworn to defend when I’d taken my oath of enlistment.

In that moment, I was reminded of the words to “America the Beautiful,” which some have argued should be our national anthem because it so evocatively celebrates the natural wonders of the United States. Most people remember the lines about “spacious skies” and “purple mountain majesty.” But for those who might miss the bellicosity of “The Star Spangled Banner,” there is also this verse: “O beautiful for heroes proved / In liberating strife / Who more than self their country loved / And mercy more than life!” The song captures not only the beauty of America’s big, open spaces, but also the sacrifices sometimes required to protect those spaces. 

I, too, believe that “America the Beautiful” should be our national anthem, a conviction that has only deepened in the years since I returned from Iraq. My fight for free lands for all the people of the United States didn’t end when my military career was over. My mission just took on a different shape: I went from defending the nation overseas to defending public lands here at home. Like many other veterans, I found a kind of healing in wild places. I also found something just as important—a renewed sense of purpose and another way to serve my country. 

“America the Beautiful” was written at the turn of the last century by an English professor named Katharine Lee Bates after she visited the summit of Pikes Peak, near where I grew up in Colorado. My childhood home was on the edge of the Pike National Forest, and I could clearly see the peak’s summit from my hometown of Green Mountain Falls. 

My family spent a lot of time outdoors. Vacations meant road trips and camping, since my father refused to get hotel rooms and we never flew anywhere. A massive tent accompanied us on every trip. At the time, I didn’t appreciate this style of recreation; I just thought my dad was being cheap. Eventually, though, I realized what a gift it was. From a very early age, my brothers and I had an opportunity to visit a great many national parks and forests. 

That outdoorsy upbringing is no doubt why, when I returned home after my honorable discharge from the army, I had an instinct to escape to the mountains. I thought I would find healing there, or at least repose. For me, there has always been something predictable (and therefore comforting) about a wild place that makes it less wild—and less frightening—than the confusing motivations of people, the intensity of city life, and the pace of the modern world. I know what a storm can do and how a river runs. I can identify with hungry bears. 

By immersing myself in the wilderness, I had the time and the space to reflect on my war experience. In the forests and the mountains, I found healthy challenges that sped up my recovery, both physical and psychological. The serenity of the outdoors was critical to my transition from soldier to civilian. The lands I had defended as a soldier mended my injuries.

But my post-deployment outdoors adventures weren’t all alpine wildflowers and clear, cold rivers. Along the way, I found that some of my favorite places had disappeared or become unrecognizable. It was a thrill to rediscover spots I had been to as a boy, but it was jolting to see how they had changed. I found new roads cutting through the forests. Some landscapes were pockmarked with oil and gas wells, while others had become condominium-choked resorts. Lands I had cherished as a child were essentially obliterated. 

If anything, the environmental destruction and reckless development I saw made me feel more akin to the land, because I, too, felt damaged. I say that the wilderness helped heal me—but that doesn’t mean I now feel whole. I still struggle with hypervigilance, night terrors, and anxiety, along with intrusive thoughts and anger issues. “Post-traumatic stress disorder” doesn’t come close to conveying the nightmarish conditions. These are fears that defy definition and easy diagnosis, fears that I have only been able to overcome in places where humans don’t rule. 

Post-Iraq, the farther away I got from concrete and asphalt, the farther I got from the war. I felt that I owed a debt to the land. But how could I repay it? Eventually, I found a way.  

When I went through army basic training to become a cavalry scout at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, I received instruction that was both deep and broad. I learned to operate radios, Bradley tanks, and M-16s with maximum proficiency. I was given a unit of fellow warriors whom I would learn to trust with my life, people who shared both my training and my values. And I was given a mission. With my squad of brothers by my side, I thought I could accomplish any task assigned to me.

Why do some people decide to make a personal sacrifice and join the military? For many, I believe, it’s not eagerness for combat. Soldiers, marines, and airmen take pride in their military experience because it is the essence of service. They are fueled by a desire to be part of something larger than themselves. This ethic can become addicting; service becomes essential to a person’s character. When a service member takes off their uniform and becomes a veteran, oftentimes they lose the connection to the very thing at the center of their self-respect. At least, that was true for me. When I was separated from my brothers, my sense of mission vanished. 

It wasn’t until I put on a different kind of uniform (a suit and tie just sharp enough to pass muster on Capitol Hill) and found a new band of brothers and sisters at an organization called the Vet Voice Foundation that I felt like part of a team with purpose again. I was able to adapt my military leadership training into grassroots organizing and advocacy skills. I gained amazing allies among a diverse group of passionate people. I dedicated myself to a new mission that reawakened my sense of patriotism. 

I couldn’t be prouder of that mission: organizing and lobbying to conserve this country’s remaining wildlands. One of my big priorities these days is the Continental Divide Campaign, which seeks to expand wilderness areas near my home in the Rocky Mountains. I’m also working on restoring Colorado’s Camp Hale, where the 10th Mountain Division began training for high-altitude alpine warfare during World War II. If successful, we will preserve a unique piece of U.S. military and recreational skiing history, and allow people to enjoy the same lands on which our soldiers trained.

I am also involved in an effort called We Are the Arctic, a national coalition (including the Sierra Club) that is demanding permanent protection for the entirety of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This summer, I’ll be rafting one of the rivers on the north slope of the Brooks Range with a group of veterans who have pledged to push decision-makers to grant wilderness status to this vast, untamed region. 

But this work is about more than protecting big landscapes. It also involves defending the ideal of common cause that is at the heart of our nation. To me, the preservation of vast regions of this country for all Americans—regardless of race, class, or religion—is one of the highest representations of democracy. 

Not everyone agrees, of course. This country is in the midst of an ideological fight over the concept of public lands. There are those of us who feel that all citizens have a right to parks, monuments, forests, and wildlands. And there are others who don’t even believe in the idea of public lands, who think that landscapes should be privately owned and developed or exploited for natural resources as the individual owner wishes. If the big money and private interest groups win out, the places I enjoyed as a kid will disappear forever.  

And so I continue to fight, though my weapons have become briefing papers and email alerts and public lectures. I have pledged to never surrender. After all, what is more patriotic than fighting for the ideals of equality and a shared ground that we all can call a sanctuary?

My mission may have changed, but my service to my country continues. I’m battling to save the lands that once saved me.

Originally posted to SierraClub.org | June 7, 2016