A few of the veterans who led the Pledge of Allegiance on Veterans Day at the Cumberland (Kentucky) Chapter Annual Gathering.
I spent this Veterans Day with fellow Sierra Club volunteers at the Cumberland (Kentucky) Chapter annual gathering, held this year at Barren River State Park. It was incredibly moving when 12 military veterans who are also Sierra Club members led us in the Pledge of Allegiance.
The Sierra Club has a long history of engagement with those who serve. Aaron Mair, my immediate predecessor as president, is a U.S. Navy veteran. (That's Mair at right, below.) The Club’s first and third executive directors, David Brower and Martin Litton, both served in World War II; Brower in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division and Litton in the 82nd Airborne’s Glider Infantry Wing. The two went on to lead the Sierra Club’s successful fight to prevent the proposed damming of the Grand Canyon.
Sierra Club President and U.S. Navy veteran Aaron Mair and President Obama celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service in Yosemite National Park on August 25, 2016. Photo by Marta Stoepker.
From 2006 to 2012, the Sierra Club was one of the largest non-governmental supporters of the military community. Thanks to a dedicated donor, we were able to provide more than 50,000 outdoor experiences for service members, veterans, and their families. These trips included summer camps for the children of deployed military parents, experiences with Outward Bound for Veterans, and job training in solar, wind, and energy efficiency programming. We even found our current Director of Sierra Club Outdoors, Army veteran Stacy Bare, through this engagement with the military community.
Longtime volunteer activists like Paul Wilson, Kim Crumbo, and former Ohio Chapter Chair Bob Shields paved the way for staff like Senior Military and Veteran Campaign Representative Rob Vessels, Student Veteran Campaign Representative Aaron Leonard, and Southeastern Military Coordinator Lornett Vestall to assume leadership positions with the Club’s Military Outdoors program, which gets more than 14,000 veterans, service members, and their families outdoors each year. Several other vets work in various departments and capacities throughout the Sierra Club, thousands of our volunteers served in the armed forces or have family members who did so.
We’re also leading the way on researching the benefits of time outdoors for service members dealing with post-traumatic stress (PTSD). In partnership with U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, we’ve shown up to a 27 percent decrease in PTSD symptoms after one night spent outdoors. (This research is currently under peer review.) For more personal accounts about the healing power of nature, see:
- This recent Telegraph op-ed by Lornett Vestal
- The Patriotism and Public Lands video, featuring Stacy Bare and other veterans on a Sierra Club rafting trip
- The Land We Defend video with Aaron Mair and six other veterans on a Sierra Club hike
Some may find the Sierra Club’s strong connection with the military surprising, but it makes perfect sense. The Sierra Club has been defending America’s public lands and “Crown Jewels” (our national parks and other special natural places) for 125 years. Service members join the military for a variety of reasons, one of which is to fight for their country. As Stacy Bare is fond of saying, “If fighting for my country, doesn’t mean coming home to the right to roam in our beautiful nation, breath clean air, and drink clean water, then I don’t know what I signed up for!”
Veterans are often highly effective Sierra Club advocates who can “break the ice” with elected officials and other decision-makers. At the Georgia Chapter’s recent retreat, Sierra Club volunteer outings leader Pete Johnson told me about a lobby visit with a member of the state legislature. The Representative was initially skeptical of his "tree-hugging visitors," but when Pete identified himself as a former U.S. Army officer, the immediate response was, “Oh, you’re one of us!” and the meeting became much more productive.
Like the Sierra Club, many military leaders see an urgency in transitioning to renewable energy. In the theater of battle, moving fossil fuels to the front lines is one of the most costly and dangerous tasks our deployed forces face. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has urged the military to move away from oil and toward green technologies in order to help reduce the threat of attacks on fuels supplies. Here at home, more military bases are converting to renewable energy because it makes them more resilient, independent, and powerful.
Military leaders also understand the security issues of climate change and for over a decade have included climate change among the top national security threats in the Quadrennial Defense Review. As retired Rear Admiral David Titley writes in The Age of Consequences -- a powerful documentary about how our military thinks about climate change -- "serious impacts to our security will only continue to increase in both frequency and consequence. Failure to think about how climate change might impact our globally interconnected systems and all elements of U.S. power and security, is frankly a failure of imagination." (If you are interested in organizing a The Age of Consequences screening, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.)
So, this week of Veterans Day, we extend a big thank-you to all the vets -- Sierra Clubbers and otherwise -- and active duty military for your service. We look forward to a fruitful collaboration in greening our military, combating climate change, and experiencing the awe and healing power of nature together!