Winter Greetings from Huts For Vets

Margy’s Hut under the snow, back.

Visiting Margy’s Hut on a Snowy Winter Ski Tour

Words and Photos by Paul Andersen, Executive Director, Huts For Vets

If you remember your first view of Margy’s Hut as a great relief to your sore and tired hiking muscles and oxygen-deprived brain, consider the relief you would feel in the dead of winter.

Hiking up to Margy’s on skis adds weight far beyond the load you might have carried on a warm summer day. In addition to a rain jacket are heavy gloves or mittens, a thick stocking cap, down parka, snow pants, boots, goggles, face protection, ski poles, avalanche shovel, probe pole and a search beacon. Then there is the added weight of skis and climbing skins, long underwear, extra socks – and the list goes on.

Margy’s Hut under the snow, front.

Oh, and don’t forget food, sleeping bag, and the usual necessities like water, lunch, snacks, etc. In winter, there is no shuttle to the hut, so everything goes on your back.

The effort is fresh in my mind because I skied to Margy’s Hut the first weekend in February with my son, Tait, and the slog was longer than I had remembered. We went up the winter route of Johnson Creek, which is shorter and more direct than the summer route up Woody and Spruce Creeks that we follow with our summer trips.

The trail sign at Sawmill Park is almost buried

Johnson Creek takes off the main road beyond the Woody Creek trailhead and switchbacks up steep hairpin zig-zags. The day Tait and I went up was one of the first sunny days in weeks, so it felt good to strip down to bare skin and sweat out those steep grades in the heat of a warming sun.

The climb took about four hours, and by the time we reached the clearing where Margy’s stands the sun was low and the temps were plummeting. Pushing our skis along a well-beaten track through the final stands of spruce and fir, there was Margy’s, all but buried in snow up to the tops of the windows. We skied from level snow right onto the deck, the stairs completely buried.

Tait ascending an unnamed pass with the peaks of the Elk Range behind.

I got a fire going in the kitchen cook stove to take off the chill that had settled on the old log cabin, and soon the crackling of dry wood produced a whiff of pine and a radiating heat that felt good to back up against. Hot water on the range was poured into mugs for steaming gulps of hot chocolate while, beyond the front windows, the sun set on the Williams Range with a subtle orange hue.

Tait and I shared the hut that night with three young skiers from Steamboat Springs – two beautiful sisters and a boyfriend – who returned at dusk for a ski tour to the top of Mt. Yeckel. While they spent the evening rolling dice on the Monopoly board, Tait and I were early to bed in preparation for a long ski tour the next day into the headwaters of the Hunter Creek drainage.

In the quiet of the morning, Tait and I enjoyed a 4-egg omelet with grated cheese, grilled fruit bread, crispy turkey bacon and strong, black coffee. We packed our gear and were off as the sun slanted across the valley and glanced off the windows of the hut. The sky was deep blue and clear. The temperature was 10 degrees.

The ski down to Sawmill Park was like a luge run through the thick timber, requiring a series of quick telemark turns to avoid kissing the rough bark of a spruce tree. The trail sign at Sawmill Park was buried almost to the top. A quick probe of the snowpack showed five feet of snow on level ground. We felt like we were levitating over the ground as we skied another mile down the Spruce Creek trail.

Tait making telemark turns in “hippie pow” on the gentle slopes high at the headwaters of Hunter Creek.

Tait had a route mapped out in his head that we followed across the creek and up a series of small, connecting meadows. The sun glinted like a million diamond chips in the bright sun, and the depth of the blue sky formed a stark contrast to the blinding white of the snow.

Skinning up a sunny meadow above Spruce Creek.

Up and up we went, Tait breaking trail for his grateful father. The snowpack had a solid base that made trail breaking reasonable through six inches of eiderdown. We eventually summited the 12,200-foot ridge that can be seen from the deck of Margy’s across the deep valley from which we had climbed. 

We stripped off our climbing skins at the top of the ridge on this calm and beautiful day, and we swooped down with gentle turns on a gentle slope over perfect snow to find a makeshift winter camp to be dug in the deep snow at 11,600 feet. We would spend the night six feet under in a snow cave dug with our avalanche shovels.

Admittedly, the 10-hour night in our snowy berth was long, but we were snug in our down sleeping bags like a pair of hibernating bears. And in the dark of night, when the hot tea we drank before bed made the urge to climb out undeniable, we were greeting by a night sky smeared with glistening stars and planets that seemed to mirror the glittering snow crystals of the day before.

With a warm breakfast of instant oatmeal and coffee in our stomachs, we packed up and skied a beautiful, undulating, low-angle slope down to the valley floor, then tracked through woods, across meadows and over boulderfields – all covered deep in snow. Sometimes we skied right down the creek bed over great hummocks of snow and the creek murmuring faintly below.

Deep snow and soft textures.

When we finally reached the familiar junction of Woody and Spruce Creeks, the trail sign was barely visible. We skied across a snow bridge instead of crossing on the usual log upon which stood three feet of snow. The lower trail to Lenado was narrow and fast and required quick moves to flash through tunnels of overhanging brush roofed over with snow.

The log bridge crossing Spruce Creek was piled high with snow, so we crossed on a snow bridge.

Back at the car, the promise of cold beer was thwarted with frozen cans that spewed beer slush that still went down thirsty throats with relish. A more substantial repast was enjoyed at the Woody Creek Tavern, with a toast to Margy’s Hut and to the beauty of deep winter in the Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness of our beloved Elk Range.

HFV on the The Eagle Nation Podcast

Given the philosophical nature of discussions during Huts For Vets programs, Exec. Dir. Paul Andersen was invited for an interview on this podcast. Huts For Vets is grateful to JJ Pinter and Team RWB for making this happen. We appreciate the sharing of ideas as a step toward greater understanding of the world, each other, and ourselves.

HFV Suggested Reading

What we’ve discovered in our six years of leading men and women veterans and active duty service members into the wilderness is that most participants are philosophers and deep thinkers. We believe this is because military service has exposed many to deep reflections of life, death, and the meaning of existence. The level of conversation is refreshing in a modern age where most people barely look up from their screens to acknowledge those around them.

In an effort to continue the greater discussions had on our trips, we have come up with a list of suggested readings from HFV staff and board members. We encourage participants to be lifelong learners and readers of literature. That’s what makes the HFV experience unique to other outdoor programs by providing a place of comfort and natural beauty for discussions of literature and philosophy that give context and meaning to the wilderness experience.

This perspective shift accentuates the healing salve of nature and wilderness, and it helps participants cope with and ultimately heal from the wounds of war. We plan to add to this list as time goes on and invite participants and website visitors to submit any suggestions in the comments below. Happy trails and great reading!


  • “Desert Solitaire,” by Ed Abbey
  • “The Eight Wilderness Discovery Books” by John Muir
  • “Walking it Off” by Doug Peacock
  • “Grizzly Years” by Doug Peacock
  • “Tribe” by Sebastian Junger
  •  “Evil Hours,” by David J. Morris
  • “War and the Soul,” by Edward Tick
  • “Warrior’s Return,” by Edward Tick
  • “Vets for Vets,” by Jerry Alpern
  • “The Evil Hours: A Biography of PTSD,” by David J. Morris
  • “The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” by Bessel Van Der Kolk
  • “Home of the Brave,” by Donna Bryson
  • “What it’s like to go to War,” by Karl Marlantes
  • “Man’s Search for Meaning,” by Viktor Frankl


  • “The Monkey Wrench Gang” by Ed Abbey
  • “The Yellow Birds,” by Kevin Powers
  • “Redeployment,” by Phil Klay

Online Articles

Year-End Update for 2018

‘Huts For Vets’ Builds Tipi Base Camp and Targets National Veterans Groups

By Paul Andersen, Executive Director, Huts For Vets

Huts For Vets is now a landmark in the Roaring Fork Valley on a spectacular site with three large tipis overlooking the Elk Range. This prime piece of rural ranch property is a long term loan by a generous local ranching family that has been a HFV supporter from the day we offered our first programs to veterans in 2013.

Base Camp allows us to stage our trips into the high mountains and introduce our participants to the peace and quiet of nature immediately upon arrival. Base Camp is off-the-grid, without cell phone service, which is a double blessing for simplifying life and removing buffers to the wildness surrounding us in a place where elk, deer, bears, eagles, coyotes and an occasional mountain lion could appear at any time.

In this our sixth year of running successful programs, having served over 180 veterans, Huts For Vets invited leadership cohorts from two national veteran organizations to bring their teams to the 10th Mountain Hut system in summer 2018.

This outreach coincided with the publication of a Huts For Vets manual, written by Paul Andersen and designed by HFV board member and veteran Erik Villasenor. The manual tells our story and shows what we do, how we do it, and why we continue running trips into the Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness near Aspen.

The HFV manual invites veterans’ organizations to replicate our approach elsewhere and to cultivate leaders for HFV programs in Colorado where they may return as peer mentors, trip guides, and co-moderators in the philosophical discussions that set HFV apart from any other veterans’ program we’ve seen.

In order to scale up our nature- and text-based approach, a logical step is showcasing our programs to national organizations with large memberships. Taking these leadership teams into the wilderness and introducing them to the 10th Mountain Huts both increases our referral base and provides a new level of credibility to our proven methodology.

HFV has had a strong relationship with Team Red, White and Blue for several years. This athletically-oriented veterans’ program has been referring its members to HFV, thanks to Team RWB regional leader Mike Greenwood of Colorado Springs. Mike is a Tenth Mountain Division veteran who attended one of our first programs in 2013. Over the past two years, HFV has brought in well over a dozen Team RWB members from across the country.

Our programs began this year in June 2018 with a custom program designed for a leadership team from the Pat Tillman Center, which works hand-in-hand with Arizona State University (ASU) by counseling its veteran student population towards graduation. A quick bond was established with this outstanding group, which is now in close collaboration with HFV, leading to possibly running a HFV trip in Arizona in spring 2019. HFV has invited a second cohort from Tillman/ASU to Aspen next summer with two alumni co-leaders from the 2018 trip.

Team Rubicon, a national veteran-founded organization of first responders that answers calls for disaster relief, recruited a leadership cohort from Rubicon’s eight-state western region. Many Rubicon members face post-traumatic stress, not only from their military service, but from their roles as first responders, so the HFV approach was right on target.

Rubicon joined us in August with terrific discussions and another close collaboration that will lead to inviting another Rubicon cohort to a HFV trip in 2019. Both the Tillman/ASU and Rubicon cohorts included men and women, veterans and civilians, creating a well-rounded, diverse, and engaging dynamic in the wilderness and at Margy’s Hut at 11,300 feet.

Also in 2018, HFV ran two regular men’s and women’s programs and received accolades from all participants, underscoring the values of our program. This is thanks to the excellent HFV teamwork of Brian Porter, Erin Wilkinson, Justin Lincoln, Tait Andersen, Jake Sakson, Wendy Elkin, Krysia Carter-Giez, and board members Col. Dick Merritt, Dan Glidden, Don Stuber and Erik Villasenor – all of whom attended programs this year.

In 2019, Huts For Vets plans to expand our institutional outreach by inviting leaders from Vet Voice. This connection comes from a long time collaboration with Vet Voice spokesman Garett Reppenhagen, a HFV alumnus from 2015. Vet Voice has a mission for civic leadership and has become a voice of conservation advocacy, which will resonate with the wilderness immersion that marks HFV as a nature-based healing experience.

HFV is grateful to our many supporters, both financial and in-kind, and for the veterans and active duty participants who sign up for an experience that can reveal benefits for the rest of their lives.

Huts For Vets serves veterans and active duty military personnel who have experienced trauma as a result of their service. We cover all expenses, including transportation from around the country. Interested veterans, active duty military and veteran organizations should apply to Hut For Vets by visiting our website and filling out the easy application: Or, call Exec. Dir. Paul Andersen for details about our programs and outreach – 970 927 4018.

Lonely War

By Brian Porter, Huts For Vets, Director of Operations | Song performed by Mack Bailey

I have used writing as a form of therapy for years now. Mostly it revolves around my experiences with war and I hope to learn from what I do write to better myself. Two years ago, I finally visited a friend I had served with in the Marine Corps. We had remained in touch for 20 + years but had not seen one another in that time. After our visit, I thought about how long it had been since we had seen each other, how great it was to spend time with someone that would, and has, put their life in danger so that you could live your life. I started thinking about just before we went to battle, the promises we made to one another, “If I don’t make it, please live your life for me.” I had made that promise, now, I sometimes find it hard to keep.

When I started writing about my thoughts and feelings, one line kept popping into my head as a melody, “It’s been so long Brother.” I started with that base and kept adding to it for about a year with no real expectations other than writing my thoughts down and knowing it would be a “song” about my feelings, which would help me heal. It wasn’t until a monthly board meeting that a request from Paul Andersen, Founder of Huts for Vets, was voiced for a song that we could play at the Aspen Chapel which would benefit Huts for Vets. I volunteered, quickly regretted it, but was determined to go through with it anyway. Mack Bailey, music therapist and phenomenal musician, then came over to my house to help put the song into what you hear here!

My only hope is that this song touches someone, helps them heal, and gives them the fortitude to “keep the promise.”

The Healing Tree

By Mike Greenwood, Tenth Mountain Division Veteran and Huts For Vets Alumnus

I find myself lying completely still in a rain storm, on my back, looking up to the sky wondering what I’m doing here and why can’t I move. A few seconds later I feel a rush come over my body as if I am falling off a building, heading directly for the concrete below me. I am stuck in this fall…

My journey to this spot and into these feelings started a few months before I plopped down on that wet ground. I received an email from another veteran group with information about Huts For Vets, and honestly, wasn’t too interested until I saw that we would be using the 10Th Mountain Huts to connect with nature. I signed up and instantly regretted it. You see, I was doing my best to get away from the “poor veteran” stigma that was surrounding many of us around this time. I didn’t view myself as being broken or in need of help. When I took this free trip, I felt like I was falsely admitting that I needed help.

As the trip began to unfold, I received my book of readings and refused to open it. I felt that if I opened it, it would become reality and that I would be giving in to the thing I had been running from for so long. In my mind, at that time, I would become a “poor veteran” and I would need to be helped.

The morning of my trip, I packed up my car, stashed a lunch in the trunk and set off for Snowmass, CO with a heavy head. I felt as if I was going against everything I had worked so hard to get away from. Since leaving the Army and rediscovering nature, I had become a runner. I started running because I noticed that when I was out there, sweating and pushing myself, I was able to leave a lot of the things I had been carrying around since Iraq and Afghanistan out on the trail. With running I found peace. On this drive, I felt like I was running behind myself and shoveling up every memory, emotion, and weight I had dropped in the past
four years. I was weighing myself down once again. How would I ever get up that trail into that hut?

On my way up to Snowmass I had to fight the urge to turn around at almost every mile. In my head, I was making it out to be a forced death march, where I would surely perish. I pulled into the meetup spot numb and feeling like I was being guided by something I couldn’t control. I would later find out that I was being guided by nature to come and experience her, heal in her, and give her everything I scooped back up on that drive up there.

While lying on the ground, face pointed at the sky, with rain soaking my body as it falls from the black clouds above and spreads itself across the ground, my fall begins. But I quickly realize that I am not falling, I am actually watching everything fall towards me. I envision a funnel with the top open towards the sky, accepting vivid memories from my past like the lake at the bottom of Niagara Falls.

…I see myself as a little kid, standing alone, crying in the front yard as my mother is carted away on a stretcher because she was just beaten up by her boyfriend and has a broken eye socket. This one falls deep into the funnel…it’s been with me for a long time and is trying to claw its way back out, pleading with me to extend my hand…but I let it continue its fall…

…I’m sitting in the middle of my high school gymnasium feeling like every eye is on me because I am the poor kid from a broken home and have no shot at life. This one is bouncing off the walls, scraping pieces of them as it stumbles towards the bottom…this is one that has given shape to my life up until this point…I’m happy to see it fall…

…I’m running towards an Iraqi Army truck that had just been hit with and IED and has multiple casualties sprawled on the side of the road. The soldier I run to has his eye hanging out of his head and has multiple wounds on his legs, with blood pouring out of every one of them. This one is swirling around the funnel, takings it’s sweet time as it makes its way to the bottom and out the other end, finally falling on the rain-soaked ground next to me. It’s trying to get me to pick it back up…but I turn away from it and let it crumble!
The last image to fall is of me and all my army buddies sitting in a bar in Brownsville, NY smiling, tossing back PBR’s and singing “Don’t Stop Believing’” at the top of our lungs deep into the night until our voices are hoarse. This one falls in slow motion; it looks as if it’s flushing the funnel clean as it makes its way down, picking up all the other memories and forcing them out the bottom. As it hits the ground, it’s the only one to survive the fall…it’s still intact…

As the fear leaves my body, I look back up to the sky and notice that the funnel is gone and the quaking aspens are waving at me as if they are saying, “Hello, welcome to life, we have been waiting for you…” I reach to my right and touch the tree and feel her beauty as she passes through me, and this is the first time in years that I feel at peace. I feel as if I am part of something again…accepted for who I am. I don’t feel shameful or weak or broken anymore. Even though I never admitted it, deep down I had felt that way and was trying my hardest to hide it. I feel free now!

I jump up as if I am being pulled to my feet by a greater force…and directed forward. When I stand, my head is high, my back is straight, and my eyes are pointed forward. This is the moment I begin to heal…out in that meadow, surrounded by trees, wildflowers, and a group of veterans who are also trying to find their peace under a tree… I feel good.

In the years to follow, I would join the Huts For Vets crew in the production of a play, acting out a character on stage; this was my first and last time acting, but I did it. The next year, I would be trained in moderating discussions around the readings in that book I was so afraid to open on my own first day. The following year, I was asked to return to that trail, to that hut, and to my tree on the side of that meadow, this time as a moderator and member of the guide team. The next year, I would lead my own group up that trail, into that hut, and past my tree as I honed my skills as a leader, a husband, and a father.

To this day, I can still see my memories laying at the base of that tree, battered, bruised, and torn from the elements. But I also see myself standing tall, head up, back straight, eyes forward, with my feet planted firmly as that aspen tree waves good-bye and slowly nudges me forward with one of her branches…

Bringing Philosophy to Veterans in the Colorado Wilderness

Lightning flashed, thunder crashed, and rain drummed on the roof of Margy’s Hut in August 2016 as Aspen Institute senior moderator Pete Thigpen led a dozen US men and women combat veterans through a discussion of “The Melian Dialogue,” by Thucydides.

Thigpen, a Marine Corps veteran from the 1960s, opened with a tutorial on how to lead a seminar. The seminar approach is used by Huts For Vets to introduce veterans to philosophical discussions conducted amid towering mountain peaks and plunging timbered valleys in the Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness.

In summer 2016, during its fourth year, HFV for the first time invited alumni veterans to a training program preparatory to their guiding fellow veterans into the wilds and into the world of ideas. HFV plans to expand its programs to other huts and other locations, under the leadership of veterans.

In our discussions, the moral and ethical challenges of military service are appreciated by post-9/11 veterans who directly paid the price of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and elsewhere. More than one veteran at the seminar table has described how those wars have colored their lives, often years after their homecomings.

Watch the Discussion Here

Moderator Training – The “Melian Dialogue” from Huts For Vets on Vimeo.

As Huts For Vets ramps up for five men’s and women’s programs in summer 2017, we celebrate having taken over 130 veterans into the Colorado wilderness to walk serene nature trails and plumb the philosophical depths many veterans have already pondered by facing the big questions: life, death, and the meaning of existence.

Primed by a syllabus of preassigned readings, veterans in HFV programs come to appreciate the merits of intellectual rigors as a complement to the physical rigors of hiking to Mt. Yeckel at 11,700 feet. Together, these physical and intellectual challenges provide a perspective shift that many veterans identify as the most positive, holistic healing experience they have ever undertaken.

Huts For Vets owes its existence to the 10th Mountain Hut System of Aspen and to the many funders and supporters who allow us to pay all costs for the veterans we serve.

Explore the 10th Mountain Hut System Here.

Where War Lives

Dick Durrance was raised in Aspen, worked for decades as a professional photographer, and is reopening his photo files on images he shot as a military photographer during the War in Vietnam. The three images here represent the close intensity with which Durrance chronicled the war and the soldier who fought in it. His book, “Where War Lives,” is a testament to his art and reveals the real deal as he saw it on many fronts during the war. Durrance’s slide show from this period is riveting, and he is open to taking it on the road to veterans groups, schools, communities and to anyone who can appreciate the impact his images contain. To reach him, email or connect through Huts For Vets.



Photos by: Dick Durrance, “Where War Lives”

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

Originally posted to | June 7, 2016

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


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 | June 7, 2016