Deidra Goodwin poses with an image of Smokey Bear as a child.

Deidra Goodwin poses with an image of Smokey Bear as a child. (Photo courtesy of Deidra Goodwin)

Life as an Army kid — and likely most military kids — isn’t always the easiest. I’ve been told that when our parents serve, we serve. In my childhood, I would find myself in a new school, new community, new state every 2-3 years, like many of the more than 1.6 million military children in the U.S. currently. It’s an unfortunate reality that parental military deployment can have a heavy impact on children. The National Military Family Association Military Teen Experience Survey on Mental Health for 2023 showed 40% of respondents were classified as having low mental well-being.

The military community is not a monolith. My experiences as an Army child are not the same as another’s, not even my own sisters’ experiences. But for me, the outdoors was a constant among the changes happening. Being raised in a family that valued time in the outdoors — whether it was sports, the garden, or walking the dogs — made that constant so incredibly valuable. I might not have had a say in what station was next, but I had the outdoors when I got there. That was supplemented by the efforts my parents underwent to make every change an adventure. Cross-country trips from station to station almost always included staying at a campsite on base operated by military recreation. Time living on base was also dotted with outdoor experiences like youth sports, camping, fishing, canoeing, and even scuba diving.

The outdoors is a well-documented resource to improve physical, mental and emotional health. Kids and youth have been increasingly dealing with thoughts of depression and suicide over the past 15 years, and the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis haven’t helped. For military youths and kids facing unique challenges, engaging them in outdoor programming can be crucial in helping them process the many changes in their lives. With this month being Month of the Military Child, it is important to acknowledge the ways that being military-connected has impacted our childrens’ lives.

Some of the life-changing programs I experienced happened through opportunities from the Army. My love of scuba diving came from taking an introductory course through Army MWR at Fort Lewis before it was Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. During my first job in the outdoors as a challenge course facilitator at the Eagle Challenge Course at Florida Gulf Coast University, I kept my LDRSHIP (Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal courage) keychain from when I was 9 in my backpack. My introduction to the Sierra Club came from a veteran who was a coworker of my mother’s, sharing her magazines with me because of my love for the environment and outdoors in middle school.

The Army brought me here. Now I have a chance to advocate for programs that will bring more folks alongside me and open up a world of opportunities for youth who encounter the same things I did when I was their age.

Some of these programs and opportunities already exist, such as National Military Family Association’s Operation Purple, Blue Star Families’ Blue Star Outdoors, and the work of the National Parks Conservation Association’s veterans program. But non-military programs can also offer a lot to military youth, especially as we get older.

I found my start in the corps world through participating in the National Park Service Academy with the Student Conservation Association in 2016. This program remains an example of the difference an intentional program can make in connecting youth from all backgrounds, especially those who are often underrepresented in professional conservation spaces despite experiencing the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

That makes it so exciting for me to see the American Climate Corps (ACC) develop in real time. Announced last year and with applications opening this year, the ACC could easily be added to the list of options for military youth to engage with the outdoors in a healthy way while building a career for themselves and making a difference in their communities at the same time. The ACC needs to be intentional about recruiting from communities who haven’t seen the same opportunities in the environmental and conservation fields, and reaching out to military youth is one way to reach more Black, brown and Indigenous communities as well as disabled, rural and low-income communities.

The outdoors may not be a cure-all for the challenges that our military youth are facing, but it can offer an important outlet and refuge for kids trying to find steady ground in a rapidly changing environment. Knowing how much time spent outdoors and in nature did for me personally and now professionally, and with new programs like the ACC being introduced every year, I’m excited to see the next generations of military kids engage with the outdoors and discover new ways they can serve their country.

Deidra Goodwin is a campaign strategist for Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors Campaign.

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