As seen in The Lethal Minds Journal Volume 13
Career and civilian transition guidance, geared towards helping servicemembers plan their careers and help transitioning servicemembers succeed in civilian life
The Armed Forces Initiative - Trevor J. Hubbs
In 2004, two veterans named Mike Beagle and Tony Heckard sat down around a campfire with five other conservation advocates and decided to create a non-profit organization devoted to public lands and water access and conservation. Mike and Tony both knew what public land and waters meant to their transition from military to civilian life. But in 2004 neither could have guessed the organization they created would one day be one of the country’s best examples of veteran's outdoor adjunct therapy or that it would be helping to advise the Veterans Administration, Department of Interior, and other government entities on the ways federal public lands can accelerate veterans’ recovery outdoors.
In 2018, during the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers annual survey, the organization learned that 12% of BHA’s membership was connected to the military community in some way, whether active duty, reserve, National Guard, veteran, or a Goldstar family. It was an interesting discovery because, depending on which statistic you read, only 4-7% of the general U.S. population has a similar connection. Upon further examination, BHA discovered that of that 12% military membership, over half of those members were serving in a leadership role within BHA, whether organizing events, leading trail or river cleanups, or educating others about public land and water access and conservation efforts. Naturally BHA sought to expand upon this key conservation demographic and began planning to launch what is now called the Armed Forces Initiative (AFI).
After a year of applying for funding, in 2020 BHA started the AFI as an official program with a mission, “focused on getting the military community into the backcountry to create more conservationists in this essential demographic.”
At BHA we have always believed our best leaders, whether volunteers or staff, come from a military background. We know the value of these individuals to the conservation community. We believe that by engaging with people with military experience, we can not only help members of the military community through the transition from military to civilian life but also greatly increase the talent within the conservation community.
The Armed Forces initiative takes members of the military community into the backcountry with the goal of accomplishing three tasks:
Provide short term medicine – We know that being outdoors, hiking, hunting, fishing, camping, bike riding, etc. has a positive effect on transitioning veterans, or anyone experiencing symptoms of PTSD. We know there is a correlation between time spent outdoors and reduced stress, feelings of depression, and anxiety. Our first goal is to take members of the military community and show them an amazing time outdoors while teaching them to replicate the experience without being dependent on an organization to take them the next time. We like to say, we don’t do once in a lifetime experiences, we create a lifetime of experiences.
Build A Tribe – We know another issue being faced by the military community, particularly after transition, is a lack of a community or tribe. By introducing our event attendees to people with the same life experiences, who also like hunting and fishing, we can ensure that our events are not simply a one-off event or a once in a lifetime experience. Upon leaving our event each candidate should have the skillset to repeat the experience and a peer group with whom to get outdoors.
Inspire a Mission of Conservation – The last piece to this puzzle is the most important. We know from surveys and outside studies that having a cause bigger than oneself is hugely important to mental health in the military community. Service to a cause bigger than themselves is why most of our members chose to enlist in a time of war. Fortunately, with hunting and fishing, conservation offers a cause greater than catching a fish or harvesting a bull elk. Conservation is a cause that ensures an experience that meant so much to a participant, is there for another comrade in arms. Supporting conservation efforts is a way for members of the military community to continue to serve their country by protecting public lands that only exist in the United States. BHA wants everyone who leaves their events to understand not only how to recreate outdoors, and to have a peer group with whom to recreate, but also to become so passionate about their chosen pursuit that they cannot help but get involved. BHA wants to give the military community a new mission, one of conservation.
There are obvious benefits to the military community in BHA’s efforts, but there is also a benefit to BHA in committing energy and funding to a program like the Armed Forces Initiative. The BHA’s military members are the most likely to take on leadership roles and conservation projects at the chapter level. Having more members willing to get their hands dirty for conservation is obviously a huge benefit to BHA. Furthermore, the military community has a very powerful card to play in policy. To put it gently, few politicians can afford to be seen as anti-veteran or anti-veterans’ adjunct therapy.
An example may be seen in the recent win in the Minnesota Boundary Waters, in which connection minded America’s delivered protection to a critical jewel in America’s wilderness crown. Americans writing their elected official opposing a sulfide mine in the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area received a standard form letter response indicating that the mine was critical for national defense. This was strange given that the mining company was from South America and the contract to sell the goods mined was with China. It was a big help to be able to say, “Yes, Senator/Congressperson, the Boundary Waters are critical to national defense, just not in the way you think”, and then show how these natural areas help the military community work through the last twenty years of war. Bluntly, when a tax attorney stands up at a natural resource meeting, their words don’t carry the political weight of someone standing up and saying, “As a veteran, or as an active-duty Navy Sailor, I think…” Veterans have a powerful card to play. We might as well play that card in favor of conservation.
Because it works.
The Armed Forces Initiative has introduced more than 5,000 servicemembers to the backcountry since its first event for eighteen veterans on the plains of eastern Montana in 2020. It’s now 2023, and after two years of data collection and 2000 survey results, we still don’t quite have the sample size I would like. But through the use of pre- and post-event surveys, along with hundreds of recorded interviews, we have accumulated data for a VA and Department of Interior study of the outdoors’ impact on veteran’s recovery. So far we have found that over 40% of BHA members are associated with the military community; that within six months of a BHA event participants spend an average of $1000 on outdoor gear for their personal use, indicating they continued hunting or fishing after we have taught them how; 99.8% of participants say that our events left a positive impact on their physical and mental wellbeing; and 34% of participants get involved with their local BHA chapters and lead more of these types of event one of the reasons for our rapid growth across the country. We want you to get involved.
The Armed Forces initiative has state-based volunteer leaders in forty-six states (we need help in Hawaii, Iowa, Indiana, and New Jersey) with twenty-six active-duty installation clubs teaching veterans and active-duty military members to recreate outdoors at over 130 events annually. If you or someone you know would like to get involved in the Armed Forces Initiative by attending an event or becoming a volunteer leader for your military tribe, please check out our website: