First light was still hours away when a troop of four Iraq and Afghanistan veterans struck out from Polebridge at 3 a.m. on Monday on a 60-kilometer ruck march with a mission to stand for public lands.
Marching 1 kilometer for each of the 60 national parks, the men took Forest Service roads and trails through the mountains and ended their trek in Whitefish just after 4 p.m.
Exhausted but smiling, the group arrived at Les Mason State Park on Whitefish Lake with their signs held high. “Veterans Support Public Lands.”
Though each served his time overseas for his country, all four veterans felt the need to continue the fight on the home front to ensure the protection of the lands that served as sanctuaries for them upon their return to the states.
“I think part of it is veterans put their lives on the line for the public good, for the country, and public lands are sort of an embodiment of that, you know? They’re ours,” said veteran and march organizer Andrew Person. “I think it means a lot to veterans to go out and see what they fought for.”
Person, 38, and his three fellow marchers, Anson Nygard, 29, Charlie Cromwell, 37, and Mike Talia, 37, found themselves drawn to the wilderness of Montana when they left the Army, whether they originally hailed from the state or not.
Nygard, who grew up in Utah, chose to move to Montana after his service specifically for the public lands. He said the mountains of Montana provided the perfect escape from the chaos and madness he left behind, allowing him to recover and return to himself.
“It was always something that I looked forward to coming back to,” Nygard said. “It was always something that I thought about while I was overseas and while I was doing things that I didn’t necessarily feel like doing in the moment.”
Cromwell echoed those feelings, saying that he too had dreamed of the day he would return to the wild open spaces he grew up loving and which inspired his enlistment in the first place.
While in Iraq, he said he would close his eyes and picture his “happy place.”
“I would go to Glacier National Park or the Rattlesnake Wilderness area or a place that I remembered growing up,” Cromwell said.
“So that’s what ultimately inspired me, Montana and my memories of it, to come back here,” he added.
Cromwell was a senior in high school when 9/11 shook the country to its core, reshaping the role of the military as peacekeepers into soldiers.
Upon graduation, Cromwell went active immediately and deployed to Iraq, Germany and Afghanistan over his four-year military career.
When he returned after what he described as a very intense and focused four years, Cromwell disappeared into the woods many times. The goal, he said, was to “get grounded and reacquainted with what I knew and what was comfortable so that I could refocus where I was, what I’d done, and process it.”
“It is sacred and it is inspiring and it is comforting,” Cromwell said. “That’s what I remembered growing up, and that was what was very, very important to me, because I did feel a little lost when I got out of the Army.”
Veterans of all wars and from all backgrounds nationwide have discovered the healing power of public lands as well as a connection to the places they fought so hard to protect, according to Cromwell.
One of many groups standing in support of public lands, he and his comrades traveled from their homes in Missoula, Bozeman and Helena to be in Polebridge by 3 a.m.
Over the 13 hours it took the veterans to complete their march, they swapped stories and enjoyed the quiet peace of the forests they loved.
“As we were talking over the course of 60 kilometers, you get to know each other. You share stories, and I think what we all had in common was a really deep connection to public lands, a desire to tell other people that we cared a lot about public lands,” Person said.
An unusually long trek by any standards, the march took its toll on the veterans and Cromwell said they took turns encouraging and motivating each other when the going got tough.
“It was a long ruck and there were times when … we needed to push each other, and we did and there was that camaraderie,” he said.
Two Vietnam veterans, Jim Higgins and Cliff Larson, joined the group for the last mile in solidarity.
Nygard compared the march to the rucks he undertook during his time in the 82nd Airborne Division.
“In the military, you carry a ruck sack so the people around you don’t have to carry as much. It’s a team effort, and I think that that’s a sense that we develop and we don’t lose when we leave the military,” Nygard said.
Person said all four of the marchers recognized the growing pressure to sell off or repurpose public lands. He believed this nation’s tendency to take public lands for granted presents one of the greatest threats to their survival.
“I think it is forgetting what we as Montanans hold sacred, and our land is a big, big, big one,” Person said. “I think if you care about something, if you love something, you have to speak up about it so everybody knows. Otherwise you can lose it.”
Despite the small turnout for the march, Person said he received a huge amount of support from other veterans and planned to do the march again next year.
“We want to do it again. We want it to be bigger and we want all veterans no matter what their political views are,” Person said. “If they care about public lands and if they’re veterans, we want them to be a part of this.”
Nygard said he found national parks and other public lands worth fighting for as something everyone has in common.
“If today, I woke up and someone told me I had to walk 60K in order for there to be national parks, no problem. And I think a lot of people, if they were honest about it, would do that too,” Nygard said.
Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.