During his tour as a medical platoon leader in Iraq in the mid-2000s, all Tyler Gence could think about was getting back to the Cascades. He grew up hiking in Washington’s wild country, and spoke often of his outdoor exploits to fellow soldiers. As it turned out, he wasn’t alone in his longing.
“People would be from Texas talking about the Big Bend or the Guadalupe Mountains, or they’d be from New Mexico talking about some of the areas in New Mexico,” Gence recalls. “We would talk about the places that we enjoyed, the places we wanted to go back to, and that was something that brought us together.”
As Gence talked, the sun sank behind the Bitterroot Mountains, and with it went the last weak rays of warmth. Nearby, Missoula attorney and former 173rd Airborne Brigade Capt. Andrew Person flipped burgers on a small propane grill—ground elk packed with hunks of onion, courtesy of a buddy from Bozeman. Gence’s wife and a few other friends hovered around the picnic shelter in Playfair Park, shrugging off the growing cold and talking talk about President Trump’s recent rollback of protections for the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah. That news is big, not just for the fear it’s stoked among these outdoor enthusiasts, but for its connection to their cookout’s theme: the importance of public lands to veterans.
Person is a founding member of Montanans for National Security, a group of military vets and former intelligence officials that first came together earlier this year to advocate a transparent, thorough and nonpartisan investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Now, Person says, they group is broadening its vision to focus not only on matters of foreign policy, but on what Person considers the issue facing Montanans, veterans and non-veterans alike.
“It’s a very polarized political environment right now, and veterans, regardless of their political affiliation, tend to get an audience,” Person said. “People listen to what veterans say when it comes to what our policy should be in Iraq, or what we should be doing back home. It’s a powerful voice, so we wanted to help get that voice heard.”
It’s a mission that Jonas Rides at the Door is familiar with, having traveled to Washington, D.C., in recent years with organizations including Vet Voice to advocate public lands protections. Rides at the Door served three tours in Iraq as a Marine, but said that he’s been familiar with the spiritual and healing properties of Montana’s wilderness for much longer. Seeing Trump remove protections last week from areas containing Native sacred sites has renewed his anxiety over the future of the Badger-Two Medicine, itself considered sacred among his community, the Blackfeet.
“Zinke did mention he wanted to try to designate it,” he said, referring to Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke’s recent comments about designating the Badger-Two Medicine a national monument. “But now, with this new Trump decision, there’s no guarantee that the president or someone else won’t come along and say, ‘We want to open this place up.’”
In 1930, wilderness movement pioneer Bob Marshall made a lengthy case for preserving wild spaces in the journal Scientific Monthly. He wrote of mankind’s “appetite for adventure,” an appetite he believed drove those “choked by their own monotony” to seek romance in battle. “And so they endorse war with enthusiasm and march away to stirring music,” Marshall continued, “only to find their adventure a chimera, and the whole world miserable.” Wilderness, he concluded, could serve as a peaceful alternative with its own romance. It’s an argument that Gence and Person connect with personally, without even knowing the quote. Gence calls it the pursuit of “some kind of hero’s journey.” Person elaborates:
“When you’re deployed, at any given minute anything can happen. Depending on the situation, there’s either a little or a lot of danger there, and there’s the adrenaline. You go out on public lands, and likewise, anything can happen at any given moment. You’ve got an elk down, you’re looking around, you’re attentive. You’re 100 percent present. You’re not thinking about the email you’re going to write in a week. You’re present because a grizzly bear could come up on you at any moment, so you’re aware.”
Person didn’t get an elk this season. But, reinforces his point, he did get kicked in the leg by a horse while helping a friend pack one out on the Rocky Mountain Front.
For soldiers returning from war, wild spaces have brought peace and solace. Gence found it while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Rides at the Door found it in the Badger-Two Medicine. Person hopes these stories can carry the public lands debate forward. They just have to be shared.
“In civilian life, a lot of times it just doesn’t come up,” Person says. “Talking about your military service or your experience or your first few years back home, it’s just not a topic that comes up in normal conversation. People kind of hesitate to ask.”