It's not every day that Sierra Club members mingle at VFW halls, but it happened in Portland last week when US Army veteran Stacy Bare was the guest of honor at a spaghetti supper at the Maine VFW Post 6859 on Forest Avenue.
Thirty-four-year-old Bare, a South Dakota native who directs the Sierra Club's national Mission Outdoors program, gave a talk entitled "Enjoying the Land You Defend" — encouraging veterans of all ages to get outside and experience America's natural beauty, which he believes can reap physical, psychological, and philosophical benefits.
"Our public land system in this country is the greatest physical embodiment of democracy that we have," the Bronze Star recipient told me on the phone. "Outdoor recreation isn't a partisan issue, it's a necessity for life."
He would know.
Bare came back from Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2007 (before that, he served in Bosnia and as a civilian explosive-ordnance disposal technician in Angola and the Republic of Georgia) disillusioned and lost. He struggled with substance abuse and depression, he recalls. The transition back to real life was jarring, and he felt guilty to be home safe while so many of his peers were still in danger.
It was a mountain that saved him — specifically, the Colorado Flatirons, rock formations near Boulder that are a favorite destination for day hikers and rock climbers alike.
"If it had not been for climbing the first Flatiron in Boulder, Colorado, in the summer of 2009, I would be dead or in jail," he has said.
While tackling the mountain face, Bare felt at peace and physically challenged at the same time. The anxiety he'd felt as a result of his post-traumatic stress disorder disappeared as a result of engaging with nature. He began to realize the healing powers of America's rivers and woods, beaches and mountains.
Bare also recognized that it presented both an intellectual and an emotional risk for veterans to get outside. "We're a pretty prideful group," he says. "Sometimes you'd rather not do anything if you don't know how to do it. You have to be willing to look like a fool sometimes to learn to set up a tent."
So he started making it his work to get servicemembers out into the wild. After a stint with the Denver-based organization Veterans Expeditions, he became the national Military Families and Veterans Representative at the Sierra Club in 2011. He blogged about military issues for the organization, and organized trips all over the country. Earlier this year, he was promoted; Bare now oversees the entire Mission Outdoors program that includes outreach to urban youth and local conservationists.
One of his crowning achievements so far was leading a "Climate Reconnaissance Team" comprised of eight military veterans on a seven-day excursion through Glacier National Park in Montana this summer. Chasing Ice director James Balog also participated, and a 12-minute film about the experience will go on the road next summer.
"We wanted to show people what climate change was or wasn't doing," he says, and to "go explore the land that you defended and recognize that it is under threat as well."
Veterans programming through Mission Outdoors isn't the only initiative geared toward increasing returning servicemembers' engagement with the natural world. In addition to dozens of other for- and non-profit endeavors ranging from Outward Bound expeditions to Maine's free state-park passes for vets, President Barack Obama earlier this year proposed a Veterans Job Corps that would have provided veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with jobs in national park conservation and historic-preservation projects (along with police work and firefighting). Unfortunately, the $1 billion bill was a casualty of pre-election politics; Senate Republicans blocked the legislation in mid-September.