When Anson Nygaard returned to the states after two years of active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, he headed straight for the Pacific Crest Trail.
“Just kind of the concept of walking it off appealed to us,” Nygaard says.
Nygaard was a sniper in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.
“Public lands serve a unique utility to veterans coming back,” he says.
Nygaard and three other combat veterans marched a symbolic 60 kilometers through public lands in northwestern Montana this week to highlight what they see as vital space for veterans to re-ground themselves after tours of duty.
Nygaard says hiking through California’s backcountry, stripped away from the artifice of civilization, recalibrated his baseline.
"Any time you're in wilderness, you come across another human and it's not like passing someone on the street or city," he says. "You check in. You ask if all of their basic human needs are being met. I think that in the military, that's the sense you always have. You carry a heavy rucksack so the people around you don't have to carry that much. It's a team effort."
Nygaard moved to Montana because of its immense stretches of and easy access to public lands. He works for the Montana Wilderness Association as a veteran outreach and public lands field organizer. He says public lands are threatened by legislation that would remove wilderness protections or transfer federal lands to the states. He says public lands are becoming a partisan issue, but they weren’t always.
"The Wilderness Act was not a partisan issue," he says. "It was in the wake of Vietnam. It was a way to bring the country back together from all the fractures that were going on within society. Not so unlike what's going on today."
He says Congress has already agreed on bills to fund and maintain public lands, like the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which he supports. He’d like to see more funding prioritized, like a bill proposed in March to use taxes on oil and gas developments on public lands to fund backlogged maintenance in National Parks.
"Given the reality of the reasons that so many service members ended up in the Middle East and the reason that part of the world was a priority for us nationally, I don't think it's so unreasonable for us to ask that of oil and gas now," he says.
Charlie Cromwell served four years of active duty in the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant, including a 13-month combat tour in Iraq. He says he lost himself a bit toward the end.
"All I could think about what coming back to Montana and just getting my feet underneath me, and as everyone says in the Army, 'getting your mind right,'" Cromwell says.
When he finally did get back, he says he disappeared into Glacier and the places he remembered as a kid.
"[I] took that summer to regain focus and remember where I came from, remember who I was," he says. "Remember what I wanted to be. To remember what I did in the military and to be proud of it and to channel all that and move forward with my life. And I absolutely attribute Montana and its open spaces and its public lands for me being able to get moving forward again."
Like Nygaard, Cromwell says protecting access to public lands is an issue all Montanans can get behind. He says our right to enjoy a healthy environment is even written into the state’s constitution. Still, he reads headlines that worry him.
"Everyone wants their kids to be able to go out into the parks or the public areas and go fishing and hunting or just go for a hike," he says. "It really shouldn't be a partisan issue."
Andrew Person parachuted into Iraq as part the initial invasion in 2003. He served there for a year, and then another year in Afghanistan.
"Every single one of us has their own story about how they come back from combat and spend some time out in public lands," he says. "It really helps you connect back home."
Person organized the event with help from Vietnam veteran Cliff Larson. Person said they chose the route from Polebridge to Whitefish partly for its beauty, but also because of its proximity to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s hometown.
"This is what we fought for," Person says. "This is what we love. This is what we love about America. This is what we are proud of. So we wanted to make sure that word got out."
He says these lands are at risk.
"You do feel like there's pressure now to sell off public lands or transfer public lands in a way that might result in selling off public lands," he says. "And that's something that that we want people to know we're aware of that, we're very concerned about it, we love these public lands. So that’s why we’re here."
Public lands management has been a rallying issue for candidates on both sides the aisle in Montana’s recent elections. The upcoming midterms are expected to continue the trend.
While none of the veterans backed a specific candidate, Person and his co-organizer Cliff Larsen, who both served as Democrats in the Montana legislature, have stumped for Senator Jon Tester before. A regional director from Senator Tester’s office congratulated the marchers at a finishline picnic, where a handful of vets from Vietnam served them all steak and burgers. Tester’s staffer said he had no part organizing the event.