SAN PEDRO HOUSE — Under a canopy of blue skies and floating clouds, a small group of men and women gathered to talk about what it meant to them to be a part of the Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors Program (MOP).
Sergio Avila, Sierra Club local outdoors coordinator, and Dan Millis, Sierra Club program manager, brought down them down from Tucson for an interview with the hope of spreading the word to other military servicemembers of the freedom they found as a volunteer with the MOP. It provides help not only to past service members, but active duty, and their families as well.
For Marine Corps veteran Michael O’Connell, who served in Iraq and ended his five-year military life in 2012, transitioning out of active duty to the pace of civilian life was a struggle. Flashes of memories of what he saw as a result of war and coming home a different man made civilian life difficult at best.
He bounced from job to job, dealt with unemployment, tried to “decompress.” His life was not as it was before he went to war. Everything was different. Then, he decided to do something about it and volunteered for outdoor programs in his community. The work led him to improving native habitat with the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) biological restoration projects.
The quiet of working outdoors gave him time to think, reflect on his service and what he wanted to do with his life.
“Being outdoors helped me transition. It was therapeutic to be outdoors. I don’t think I would have been able to process all that without it. It was what I needed at the time,” he said.
When he heard about the MOP, he immediately got involved, honed his skills and entered training to be an outdoor leader.
“I wanted to help with the MOP to be able to provide these benefits to others who were transitioning out of the service,” he continued.
Philip Shea, U.S Army retiree and Arizona native, became involved with the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Team because of his 21-year military experience and his love of his home state. After his 20 year career, 10 of those years in Iraq, he was asked to extend his duty for another year and spent that year working in a program called Strong Bonds which assisted soldiers and their families.
“What it did was build relationships and resiliency,” he continued. “A big part of that was me participating in hiking trips along the Arizona Trail and doing (the Grand Canyon) Rim to Rim trips. I saw the tremendous power of soldiers interacting with nature, with communities, by the challenges of the hikes themselves and help them deal with the things they were dealing with on the inside. You could hear that in talking around the campfire.”
Though he did not hike with them, he provided them support and drove supplies and equipment, set up camp sites and found where the showers were. Seeing the reactions of the hikers and sharing their camp talks, he saw the enormous benefit of such outdoor projects.
For him there was an obvious connection between the Sierra Clubs Borderlands restoration and the MOP and he wanted in.
Avila said Shea has led hikes along the border to see the impacts, has taken a leadership role in the MOP and reaches out to the community.
“Seeing these volunteers get together, and though they are different, they are all working for the same reasons,” Avila added.
For Karla Terry, working at the forefront of the national movement, she wants to ensure everyone in nthe Armed Forces and their families has the opportunity to join and benefit from the program as she has.
She was in trouble coming out of the U.S. Army and fell victim to alcohol’s numbing of senses. Thanks to a 2011 opportunity to go out with the Sierra Club on a trip, her experience led her to sobriety.
“I don’t know where I’d be without the Sierra Club,” she said with conviction. “I left the Army with no real direction. They saved my life.”
She added, “I’m really pleased to be out there working with the veterans. I knew I wasn’t alone in the challenges of coming home. And this concept of getting veterans outdoors sparked something in me.”
Terry is also part of the Southwest Conservation Corps in the Veterans Fire division. It happened during a time of her early sobriety and she felt her time spent in it gave her great benefits from “being out in the woods and focusing on something else.”
Now, she wants to “pay it forward” and help give the same opportunity to others who have served and their families.
Terry also pointed out the problems arising from deployment on families. “It’s tough for them to live the military life. This helps them, too, because they get to share time with other families and talk about their shared experiences.
Suzanne Bott, “a military brat who moved around a lot,” volunteered to go to Iraq, as all these veterans did, as a member of the U.S. Department of State to help muster and manage resources to rebuild the wartorn country from 2007 to 2010. She was stationed in Ramadi and Mozul, battlegrounds in the war.
She gives a lot of credit for her “sense of ethos” to her father, a pilot stationed at one time at Davis-Monthan Air Base in Tucson where she was born, and all the moving around they did.
She attended the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs and went into land use planning and did a lot of historical preservation and conservation work. She went on to Colorado State and wrote her doctorate on “the factors of the natural environment that provide meaning to us. Sort of an environmental psychology. I got to spend a lot of time up in the mountains in Colorado Springs.”
Little did she know, those very skills would be needed far from home in a war zone.
“I came home with some post-traumatic stress disorder issues from seeing all the destruction and the civilian and military casualties,” she revealed.
She took a job with the National Park Service, but that put her back in time to Hawaii, Pearl Harbor and the agony of that loss. Later, ISIS blew up precious archeological sites.
“It just compounded the issue and sent me into a tailspin,” she murmured. “I spent a lot of time out in the garden. Watching the hummingbirds, Watching the seasons change and realized everything goes through a decline, like fall and winter, and then into a rebirth, spring, and the birds return.”
Those thoughts led her back to her research on the human condition and its need for the natural world.
During that time, she went on a Sierra Club trip down the Green River through Colorado and Utah. On the trip was a scientist who was monitoring the effects of nature on their emotions and general physical wellbeing and how it calmed those with physical symptoms of PTSD.
“I’ve been interested ever since and found they had the military program right here,” she added. “I wanted to become more involved.”
Avila sat back and looked at his team with pride, “We have a great bunch of volunteers.”
The border wall
What stuck out most in of the minds of them about the border wall was the underhanded use of needed military funds.
The $6 billion being taken from the Armed Forces planned for bases, equipment, housing, families, children, schools and health care, hit them hard. They feel “betrayed and disgusted” by President Trump and his administration.
All expressed their continued dedication of duty to their country. The oath they took to uphold the Constitution still beats in their hearts today long after leaving the military. To protect it and their countrymen from “all enemies, foreign and domestic” is still very real to them.
Terry said, “ I see it as a violation. They took the same oath we did. And it does nothing for security. It’s an insult to us. It’s outrageous.”
Bott said, “It’s an enormous issue. One of the most important things we were doing in Iraq to break down the divisions between people. We really were there to help the Iraqi people. Building walls does not foster compassion or bring people together. I don’t believe in that kind of separation.”
Shea said, “That oath and soldier’s life formed me for the rest of my life.”
His time in Iraq was spent rebuilding the people, their relationships, how to get everybody working together. “The Iraqis are just like us. They want work, a home, food, power, water. All the same things every dad wants for his family. ”
Can it be any different for the man across the border with Mexico? No, they say.
When Shea talks with school children in his work he tells them, he looks forward to the day the wall can be taken down. The irony of it is 20 years ago when he was a soldier, he was part of the force which fortified the wall.
“It’s an ‘I have a dream’ hope,” he softly said.
Elvira Din, the partner of O’Connell, provided a unique perspective on military life as a family member and as a person who grew up on both sides of the border.
She emphasized, “The militarization of the border has impacted our families who have crossed back and forth for centuries. Whatever happens on the border affects both sides. I saw the border become militarized as I grew up and saw how it affected the families. It alters the lives of people on both sides. We are the same people on one side of the border as we are on the other. I think that gets lost. Any way people can help build a bridge to help and support each other, I'm for that.”
She explained how the Border Patrol intimidates people to the point they are afraid to speak up. They do not know who to trust.
Avila, who worked his way through to citizenship via a green card, does not like the profiling he experiences going through border checkpoints and feels a negative tension. For him, it is not just a social issue. It is also an environmental issue. Wildlife will be cutoff from the trails their species have used for millennia, just like the Native American tribes who have come and gone across a line which exists only on paper.
Terry agreed, saying, “They are using military tactics on the border. They are using surveillance against their own people. It’s against the constitution. There are a lot of laws broken every day.”
While with the Sierra Club on a project in Texas, she noticed a continual barrage of on and off road vehicles and even helicopters checking them out.
O’Connell added, “The wall is just there to hurt people. There’s no reason for it. It was internally designed through treacherous ways. They leave gaps in the wall to trap people. It makes them come through a particular area. It’s not how people should be treated. It’s fracturing and endangering our communities. The wall is being used as weaponry against the people, not to stop the flow of drugs or human smugglers.”
He continued, “The Border Patrol is like another branch of the military. And they try to recruit soldiers ready to leave the military. There’s a video they show to them. How good can that be to bring a guy from a combat zone, with no time to decompress, and stick him out in a desert.”
Shea emphasized, “We struggle in the military to maintain our sense of values and take those values back to our communities. Where are the values of this wall?”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify Sergio Avila's immigration status.