Photo: Josh Bent
BY TREVOR HUBBS
BHA’s Armed Forces Initiative is a group of North American veterans from all branches of service who understand the power our land has. Whether it’s Coastal Carolina swamps, a logging road five miles into the Maine hardwoods or a misty mountain view in western Alberta, AFI members know there is something special to these places. They have walked across the chasm of leaving the service and through our public lands have come out the other side.
The military is designed to indoctrinate members into its way of life. This is an effective war fighting tool, one that forges some of the deepest bonds in the history of human relationships. Leaving those bonds behind for a civilian life can in many ways be more stressful than anything in the military. AFI aims to help with that transition.
Recently, AFI members finished a backcountry hunt in the mountains of Western Montana. It is through experiences like this that veterans can begin to heal and find who they once were.
“We aren’t scholars, philosophers or doctors, and we can’t explain why this works, but we’ve seen the doctors and physiologists and they don’t have the answer either. All we know is the world just feels better out here. … I feel better out here,” said AFI leader (former) and Army veteran Morgan Mason in his greeting to the group as we arrived in camp Thursday. “Our job is to find a way to show the advantages of this readily available and widely distributed public land to everyone going through what we’ve been through – in the hope that they can find the peace that we have.”
AFI took 22 veterans from all over the U.S. and brought them to a secluded camp deep in the mountains of western Montana to fly fish and hunt turkeys. But more than these pursuits, these veterans came together to learn the history and organization of our public land. Most importantly, AFI is training these men and women to take this program to their respective states and replicate this process for veterans in Wisconsin, Colorado, Indiana and beyond.
Aside from the hunt, the obvious takeaway was the conversations and relationships forged. I was privileged to hear men and women from multiple service branches, around the campfire, discussing everything from the works of Jack London to state-specific conservation issues and potential solutions based on shared experiences.
The most important but least surprising revelation is that no one there came to hunt or fish; we came to help each other.
The most important but least surprising revelation is that no one there came to hunt or fish; we came to help each other. Veterans from all walks of life took four days away from their loved ones and traveled thousands of miles because they thought they could help someone work through the same thing they went through.
This event ignited in them that deepest sense of duty they once lived for and gave them a voice to help other veterans like them.
“We experience something in these woods besides each other’s company,” said BHA AFI Member Richard Hutton Jr. (USMC) during one of these campfire evening discussions. “The wind, the cold, the rain – all are a part of this process. Seeing a bear work up a near vertical embankment or watching elk drink from a river in the valley does something to you.”
The reasons veterans take the oath to serve their county are as diverse as the veterans themselves. When you ask them why they joined, not many would say the land. We don’t realize at the time, but this idea of public lands and waters, including recreation, is an almost uniquely American right. The idea that there are lands set aside for anyone to go and experience would be a strange notion in so many other countries.
I hesitate to call what we experienced in those Montana mountains a healing experience; it was more subtle and yet more profound than that. The wind rushing down the mountain through the sleeping camp every morning and the rustle in the meadow grasses of the valley whispered to us the answers to our questions – even if we didn’t always understand.
I like to think it was thanking us. It’s as if even though we didn’t realize at the time of enlistment, the mountain was part of what we fought for, and the mountain knew. The mountain recognized us as a part of itself and thus gifted to us inner peace and purpose. That may seem a little deep for a camp of combat veterans. Maybe you just had to be there.
Trevor Hubbs is BHA’s Armed Forces Initiative coordinator. He is a hunting dog enthusiast who grew up on the bluffs and floodplains of the Mississippi and Ohio river confluence.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Backcountry Journal. Join BHA to get 4 issues a year right in your mailbox.