My Transformative Week on the Border with Military Outdoors

In February, the Sierra Club picked up an urgent call from our friends at the National Butterfly Center down in Mission, Texas. At the time, the Butterfly Center—which works to protect pollinators and brings in thousands of visitors a year—was facing condemnation by the Trump administration of more than 70% of land for construction of a segment of border wall. We mobilized a team from across the country—eight veterans, two activists from the Tohono O’odham Nation, and two Sierra Club campaign leaders— with a mission to camp at the border for a week to learn from border communities and amplify their requests to our elected officials. The land we fought to defend and the principles we took an oath to uphold were being threatened by the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant, border wall-or-bust agenda.

What we saw first-hand is this: If there is any crisis on our border, it is that being made by the unnecessary militarized occupation of border communities and the building of an ego-driven wall.

While the administration continues to falsify the international border as a dangerous war zone, our own eyes revealed a completely different story— we saw families kayaking on the Rio Grande River, busloads of elementary school students on field trips at the National Butterfly Center, and farmers and ranchers making a living. The dynamic culture and community, beautiful historical sites, and a natural environment like that of the Everglades signaled the need for the utmost resistance to more border walls and militarization of these places.

Rio Grande River, photo from Lower Rio Grande Valley Group Sierra Club

Before our group left for Texas, Marianna, the director of the National Butterfly Center, made clear that it wasn’t only their land at risk. Trump’s border-wall-or-bust agenda would destroy state parks, decimate wild places, and tear apart communities all across South Texas.

During our time recruiting for the outing, a few leaders in Congress tried to do what they could to restrict border wall construction from special places like the historic La Lomita Chapel, the Bentsen State Park, and even the Butterfly Center. Still, the massive amount of money being allocated for more border walls— from this budget cycle and last—means hundreds of more miles of barriers will be built in places next door to these protected places, harming the communities and the environment wherever they are constructed. And these walls are slated for the Rio Grande Valley.

To make it worse, Trump declared his fake national emergency immediately after the budget cycle— all because he didn’t get his enormous and deeply unpopular down payment for more walls. Not only does the emergency declaration mean he’ll be raiding national military funds meant for active duty families’ education, health care, and other services, it means the places community groups worked to protect— the La Lomita Chapel, state park and Butterfly Center— are again under imminent threat.

We set off with a specific mission. We sought to bear witness to the injustices being inflicted on border communities and hear their stories first-hand. We hoped to use our status as veterans to amplify the perspectives of Lower Rio Grande Valley residents. It was, and still is, our duty to uphold freedoms and protect human rights.

Every day of that camping trip brought with it a new experience, a different perspective, and stories to share beyond the border.

On the first night, we heard from Scott Nicol, Stefanie Herweck, and Jonathan Salinas— long-time Sierra Club volunteers fighting the border wall—  who joined our campfire to share the realities their entire community is facing. They discussed the deep cultural, environmental, and social threats of border walls and militarization. Trump’s policies of family separation, putting kids in cages, and constant attacks on border communities were inextricably tied to these walls. With one came the other.

On day two, we traveled to Brownsville—  right on the international border— to visit the Sabal Palm Sanctuary. The history and nature reserve is soon to be cut off from the rest of town once border wall construction is complete. That place was the kind that made your jaw drop. I couldn’t fathom that these beautiful sites were going to be trampled over by bulldozers and replaced with rusty walls to keep people out— most of whom were seeking asylum and a better life. That thought alone made my stomach sick, but people in the Valley were living with this reality every day.

The Sabal Palm Sanctuary, View from the Rio Grande River. Photo by Tour Texas

On day three, we learned about more threats from Sierra Club’s own Bekah Hinojosa, a local organizer fighting dirty fossil fuel projects. She talked about proposed fracked gas export facilities in the region. This fossil fuel infrastructure and pollution that comes with it, on top of more walls, would be an irreparable scar on the Rio Grande Valley. She’s been joining the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe—an Indigenous community dedicated to protecting their culture and fighting these injustices— in resistance.

One of the most memorable and moving days was the one where we met Nayda Alvarez—a school teacher in McAllen who is fighting to save her home. Proposals for another wall would cut directly over her back porch. Nadya is caring for her Mother in her last days— fighting one of life’s most difficult challenges— but she’s still working to protect the place where she grew up not only for herself, but for future generations.

 Listening to Nayda, photo by Heather Wilson 

Everything, every issue in the Valley became intertwined. It quickly became impossible to separate the fight for human rights, resistance against this wall, and militarization and protection of the entire environment and community from one another. That’s the truth these grassroots community leaders have been telling for years. My fellow veterans and I hope to take their stories and join in their fight because too much— including the principles we took an oath to defend—are on the line. Rise with us to truly protect our border region; take action to tell Congress no more funding for walls.

Floating the Rio Grande River with Volunteers, Photo by Heather Wilson

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