Words and photography by Morgan Mason
The sparse desert landscape fills the horizon. Limestone canyon walls erupt 1,500 feet up from the banks of the meandering Rio Grande, the aquatic border between the United States and Mexico. Here in Big Bend National Park, 10 U.S. military veterans are soaking it in, spending time wisely. The goal of the raft trip is a noble one with simplicity at its core: Use that time to interact with outdoor industry professionals, in the outdoors, in order to simplify the transition from the military to an industry full of brands, organizations, and publications that actively work to get people to this outdoor space.
The Sierra Club and Outdoor Industry Association combined efforts to launch a pilot ‘River Leaders’ program that has brought veterans and industry professionals alike together in this remote setting to map ways for the industry to hire more veterans. Canoe & Kayak received an invite to join and support these veterans as part of the continuation of our Healing Waters profile series, highlighting veterans making a difference in the paddling community.
The guided conversations in this military outings program focus on solution-oriented topics. The lack of digital distractions coupled with the natural backdrop enables passionate minds to stir a hot bed of ideas. Conversations approach the difficulties of both the transition to civilian life and efforts to break into the outdoors industry. Everyone in the campfire ring eagerly tells their story and shares potential paths and connections.
As one of the program leaders, Rob Vessels, put it, "You get out of the military and you are just cut loose, flapping in the wind, no purpose, no idea of what to do next." As a veteran myself, I know how this empty feeling rings true after separating from the service — especially after combat deployments, where the daily focus is on not dying. The experience of a combat deployment creates an internal void for soldiers, a change in mental chemistry. Reintegration into the civilian world is a daily practice, one that not all find the strength to tackle alone.
On this trip, a healing force present in the outdoors is unquestionable. The lucky ones have found a path to peace and connection to self, community and the outdoors. We put our diverse minds together to expose this beneficial route for other veterans.
“This trip reminded me again that time outdoors is the best way to bridge any perceived or real gap between folks who have different backgrounds,” explains Stacy Bare, a veteran who now runs Sierra Club Outdoors. “It was also exciting to hear all the different perspectives and ideas about not only how to increase opportunities for veterans in the outdoor industry, but how to expand a broad, bipartisan base of people engaged in using and protecting our public lands for all.”
The raft guides lead the floating think-tanks down the Rio Grande as dialogue from the rafts bounces off the limestone walls. While drifting in the current, the ancient cliffs tell their 100 million-year-old stories as we speak of ours.
One obvious, confidence-inspiring point percolates up as the Rio Grande's water splashes the sides of the raft, and later as the campfire crackles and pops: Dave Petri, marketing manager for Farm to Feet and a 20-year Navy vet, walks through an intricate explanation that all veterans have skills and abilities in the civilian workforce. The military is one large business; all we have to do is find the language to translate veteran experiences into outdoor industry capabilities.
For instance, all military units are broken into four components, with a surprisingly stark similarity to civilian business: S1: Administrative – Human Resources and Accounting; S2: Intelligence – Analysis & Marketing; S3: Operations – Same thing, different uniform; and S4: Supply – Supply chains and Distribution. The question becomes how to take those component skills and showcase them as abilities in professional positions. That’s where the perceived barriers begin washing away. To bridge that gap, some leaders in this pilot program have volunteered with the Outdoor Industry Association for resume workshops, events and hiring fairs with brands and organizations, working to launch more resources on the OIA site by Winter Outdoor Retailer 2018.
When asked about the next steps after this pilot program, Bare shares his thoughts. “Veterans have a bright future in the Outdoor Industry,” he says. “The Industry is already excited about bringing in more veterans.
“What comes next?” he asks. “Expanding the River Leaders program to a regional level and working to connect service members, veterans, and outdoor industry companies as a start in places where the industry and the military share space: the Front Range of Colorado, Seattle, North Carolina, and so on.”
And what does this mean for veterans? Keep an eye on the Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors page for upcoming trips that regionally connect veterans to industry professionals. Have an opportunity within the paddling community? Each veteran listed below is linked to his or her email or LinkedIn profile, awaiting a connection. Veterans are passionate, selfless and determined leaders eager to show service-oriented worth in a position with which their skills align.
OIA River Leaders, Class of ’17
Suzy Matsubara, Army
RV Camper, Big Sur Coastline
The power of the outdoor experience compels Matsubara to take her experience as a river and sea kayaking guide one step further. With leadership skills refined as a company commander, equal opportunity advisor, and diversity planner, she plans to guide water-based outdoor trips and facilitate healing workshops for individuals in need of the transformative power of a natural experience.
Vernan Kee, Marine Corps
San Diego, CA
As a Native American from the Navajo Nation, Kee is working to give back to his homeland. Projects helping youth, veterans, and anyone else interested in learning about the traditional lands while implementing his five-plus years of work in graphic design are at the forefront of his efforts.
Logan Matheny, Army
Glenwood Springs, CO
Fly-fish guiding veterans in the western rivers and hidden waterways of Colorado is Matheny's mission. While he currently works a full-time job to support his family, the call to share weekend experiences of drifting rivers and putting vets on fish is a driving force.
Michael Meehan, Army
Engaged in constructing a platform for mid-to-late teenagers to professionalize skills learned in the outdoors and develop scalable business model(s) that uses regional areas to provide instruction. This business emphasizes community mentorship to translate and market the youth's decision-making, planning, and leadership skills to future employers or schools.
Jeff Davis, Air Force
Relocating West, TBD
A 20-year career in the Air Force as an officer has developed leadership and intricate problem solving skills, which Davis plans on utilizing at a service-oriented brand, or organization that follows the ethos of service to the community and environmental stewardship.
Bradley Noone, Army
As a third-year raft and mountain guide, Noone has found solace in the outdoors while reintegrating to society after a combat tour. Understanding the healing powers, he is focused on a path to perpetually lead river trips for veterans. A further career goal is to be selected for a River Ranger position.
Ana Beatriz Cholo, US Navy
Los Angeles, CA
After leaving the service, Cholo has become a seasoned veteran in other fields as well. Working as a news reporter for the LA Times, The Chicago Tribune, and Associated Press has developed professional abilities. Cholo currently works in the PR world as a media relations and communications professional and strives to align herself with work that intertwines her love for the outdoors and service to others.
Lindsey Robinson, Air Force
Salt Lake City, UT
Beyond the continued pursuit of being a steward of the public lands and rivers on which Robinson recreates, there is a deeper calling. Her efforts work to build and deepen exposure to the outdoors for veterans and connect them with jobs, ideas, timely issues, and people with share their passion for the outdoors.
David Dennis, Air Force
Inspired storytelling with a connection to landscapes and the natural world is a pursuit of passion for Dennis. As a developing writer, he plans on aligning with publications that embody the angles of his adventuresome connection to the land and conservation mindset.
Ryan Evans, Navy SEAL
A purpose-driven maverick, Evans pursues meaningful connections with the outdoors — promoting personal/leadership development and a more sustainable society. Evans grew up in Seattle and is a former Navy SEAL. He received an MBA from UC Berkeley before working in product innovation at The North Face. He is relocating to Colorado to find his place in the thriving outdoor recreation industry therein.
RELATED: Healing Waters — Veterans, PTSD and Paddling // Veterans Finding Solace on the Water // Russell Davies explaining PTSD and his namesake nonprofit.