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OPINION

Veterans see vital, healing public lands in peril

By SHAWN VANDIVER | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: November 26, 2018

Like so many of my brothers and sisters who served in our nation’s armed forces, I see and feel freedom in our great outdoor spaces. From the beautiful Southern California coastline to our deserts, mountains and beyond, veterans from all walks of life are united by a deep love and appreciation for America’s public lands, regardless of age, gender, branch of service or political affiliation.

As a veteran who served as a petty officer first class in the U.S. Navy, I proudly wore a uniform to defend our nation’s founding principles, ideals including respect for our land, a love of our country and duty to family. I joined the Navy to fight for the best of America, and I believe deeply that our public lands and waters — and the commons they represent — are worth fighting for.

That is why I am obligated to stand up and speak out against the Trump administration’s ongoing attacks on our freedom to enjoy our nation’s public lands.

Since taking office, President Donald Trump has taken unprecedented action to undermine protections for public lands in California and across the country. Trump has severely minimized climate change as a national security threat despite military leadership’s assessment, rolled back rules that prevent air pollution, and promoted oil and gas drilling with little regard to how it affects other public resources. Trump has also undermined protection of wildlife, excluded 2 million acres of public lands from our national monuments, and placed industry lobbyists and former executives in positions of overseeing the same polluting industries they came from.

For veterans, Trump’s attacks on public lands have hit closest to home. That is because America’s public lands have always been especially important to those who have served in the U.S. armed forces. Veterans share a deep connection with the outdoors — and we believe that protecting our national public lands is a patriotic duty.

Members of the military were the first protectors of our nation’s public lands, and so much military history is now preserved and memorialized in hallowed public places. We protect both our heritage and legacy as a nation when we protect historic sites such as Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio and Cabrillo National Monument in California, which includes coastal artillery batteries built to protect the harbor of San Diego from enemy warships.

Furthermore, public lands often play a vital role in the emotional and spiritual recovery of veterans. Many of us — especially those deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq — paid a terrible price while serving overseas. Too many young men and women return suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, depression and other forms of trauma that can be debilitating.

Transitioning into civilian life also has untold difficulties. However, whether it’s reconnecting with family and friends, hunting, fishing, hiking or simply finding peace and solitude, public lands provide veterans with important opportunities to manage trauma and challenges that they cannot find elsewhere. We owe maintaining these lands to all our returning servicemembers in order to help them recover.

As the Trump administration threatens to rob generations of Americans of our natural wonders and a clean environment, our elected leaders must stand against these attacks. California’s Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris have both risen to defend our public lands, but amid all of the pressing issues they and their colleagues are contending with in Washington, they must not lose sight of the importance of defending the conservation values that our veterans have fought for.

For many generations, Americans have enjoyed our nation’s majestic outdoors and benefited from policies that sustain our environment. Our parents and grandparents left us the outdoor heritage we too often take for granted today, and our veterans fought to protect our homeland. Let’s ensure that our public lands are preserved for generations to come. Those who have served our nation deserve nothing less.

Shawn VanDiver, a Navy veteran from San Diego, is director of the Truman National Security Project, San Diego chapter.

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