Bridging the Green-Khaki Divide

Vets climbing 10,781-foot Mt. Baker in the Cascade Range.
© Sierra Club/ Veterans climbing 10,781-foot Mt. Baker in the Cascade Range. Joshua Brandon is at center in green hat.

Joshua Brandon graduated from The Citadel military college in South Carolina and served ten years as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army, including three tours of Iraq. He was awarded a silver star and two bronze stars with valor for his service and left the Army in 2012, having attained the rank of Major. He is now the Military and Community Outdoor Recreation Organizer for the Sierra Club's Mission Outdoors program.

Brandon is one of several veterans on the Sierra Club's staff (Mission Outdoors' Director Stacy Bare is another), and increasingly, veterans are taking up leadership positions within the Club's volunteer structure. Four of the Sierra Club's 63 chapter chairs are vets, and there are seven executive committee members, a national program director, and more than 20 leaders within the Club's various campaigns.

"To put this in perspective," he says, "the percentage of veterans within Sierra Club leadership is higher than in the American population at large."

Brandon, whose job with Mission Outdoors is to connect chapter outings programs with the military and with veterans and their families, is helping form a Sierra Club Veteran Leadership Team. "I've been going to events with other vets who want to get involved -- people like Ohio Chapter Chair Robert Shield," he says. "Our ultimate goal is to get veterans into Club leadership positions and more deeply involved with conservation. But the first step is to get them outdoors, because it's such a great way to fight the challenges veterans face after constant deployments and combat."

Brandon should know. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after his second tour of Iraq in 2006, and he credits getting outdoors with restoring his mental health and positive attitude.

"After I was diagnosed with PTSD I ignored the problem or treated it with alcohol, both of which were bad for me and everyone around me," he says. "I'd always enjoyed the outdoors as a kid, but growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, I never really considered myself an outdoors-y kind of guy. Then I moved to Washington State in 2008, and with Mt. Rainier staring at me every day, I decided to climb it."

Brandon says his first attempt to summit the mountain was an abject failure. On the next attempt, one of his climbing party was injured by a rock fall, a storm blew in unexpectedly, and the group had to evacuate the injured climber in swirling snow and 60 mph winds. "It was crazy," he says. "But we all fell in love with the mountain and the pursuit of mountaineering. It stimulated the camaraderie, danger, and teamwork of combat without actually getting blown up.

"For me and my friends who had suffered physical or mental injuries over the course of numerous combat deployments," Brandon says, "mountaineering and getting out into wild places were the best possible therapy -- far better than any drug or medication I'd been given. I'd never considered myself an environmentalist, but I soon found myself wanting to learn more about the wild places I was falling in love with. And it was a natural next step from there that I'd want to protect these places."

That's what Brandon has been doing ever since: connecting veterans with the outdoors. And the Veteran Leadership Team he's now helping put together seeks to strengthen what he views as a natural alliance between the military and conservation groups.

"Right now, the military is the big elephant in the room when it comes to conservation," he says. "The military is actually one of the country's largest environmental organizations. For example, at Fort Lewis in Washington, there's a prairie ecosystem and habitat that's extinct everywhere in the state but on the base. Camp Pendleton in California is working to preserve more than 3,000 acres of habitat for the threatened and endangered species that live there. More and more military bases are converting to hybrid or all-electric official vehicles and installing solar systems. It's in the military's interest to conserve energy, both from a money-saving standpoint and out of tactical necessity."

Brandon is adamant that climate change is the most pressing challenge facing both the environmental movement and the military. "Climate disruption continues to have ever-more dire consequences across the globe, and future wars are likely to be fought over dwindling resources such as water, arable land, and energy. Here at home, the military has long been at the forefront of habitat and species protection on its installations, and they've initiated countless sustainability programs in recent years."

But Brandon acknowledges that a partnership between the military and the conservation community to work together is going to be a stretch for a lot of people. Last year, he attended the first listening session conducted by the Sierra Club and the military to explore how the two sides could work together.

"My mates and I were literally on one side of the room, staring across the small space at a group of leaders from an organization that I'd only heard bad rumors and stories about," he remembers. "Then an unimposing figure walked across the room and introduced herself as Allison Chin. Within minutes, guards were dropped and new perceptions were being made."

Brandon sees the Veteran Leadership Team as a way to bridge that divide. It will not only help connect the military community with the greater Sierra Club, it will also serve as a catalyst for the Club to partner with the Department of Defense at both the chapter and national level on a number of issues, including Sierra Club priority campaigns like Beyond Coal, Beyond Oil, and Our Wild America.

"A strategic partnership with the military to protect our wild lands, fight climate disruption, and promote the use of renewable energy while helping our military community overcome the challenges through the outdoors could be one of the great legacies in the 21st century for the Sierra Club," Brandon says. "And it all starts with getting veterans outdoors. They get out into nature, they fall in love with it, and they want to protect it. The Sierra Club can help vets, and the military can help us. We're natural allies."

Tags: Conservation

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