From where former U.S. Navy Seal Ryan Evans stood, he could see and hear other military veterans whooping and hollering as they threw rocks into a puddle at the entrance of Santa Elena canyon. It was in early December in Big Bend National Park, where the Rio Grande snakes it’s way between Texas and Mexico. The 10 vets were in the middle of a two day rafting trip down the Grande.

“We had pulled into camp, day one on the river,” Evans says, explaining the scene, “And very organically, little scouting parties just started forming. A lot of the guys ended up crawling out to this high overlook of the river and just spontaneously started exploring our environment.” 

The simplicity of the moment was remarkable not just in that this hodge-podge group of seasoned warriors and military personnel were able to revert to an innocent sense of play, but also because this group had known each other for just over 24 hours.    

“Experiences like that require trust,” says Evans. “It’s vital in a team, and good teams trust each other. It can be difficult to build those experiences in a workplace environment, yet in the outdoors [trust] forms truly and quickly. That will map back into our experiences in the outdoor industry.” 

IDENTIFYING A NEED

Evans and the other veterans weren’t on the river solely for a joyride. They had been brought together as part of an inaugural event meant to address the challenges veterans face in entering the civilian workforce, particularly when seeking careers in the outdoor industry, and the benefits for businesses in hiring trained and skilled military veterans.    

Photos courtesy of Jake Wheeler

The outdoor industry is responsible for 7.6 million American jobs, but it’s unknown how many veterans are included in that number. Thanks to a group of up-and-coming leaders from Outdoor Industry Association’s Skip Yowell Future Leadership Academy, the outdoor industry is collectively turning its attention to this issue.

“When someone volunteers to serve [their country], they are putting a civilian career on hold,” says Kevin Rosenberg, Navy veteran, lead guide, and founder of Gear to Go Outfitters. He was one of the industry leaders invited on the trip to advise other veterans. “No matter how you feel about the military, someone needs to be ready and able to defend the country, and veterans are deserving of our support and respect. There needs to be some system in place that honors their sacrifice and service by helping them catch up to their civilian peers.” 

Recognizing this need, a team from the Outdoor Industry Association’s Skip Yowell Future Leadership Academy (SYFLA) tackled this problem head on earlier this year. Their capstone project resulted in a collaboration with the Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors, a program that offers outdoor trips for veterans to foster physical and mental health and ease the transition back to civilian life. Arc’Teryx, Farm to Feet, Gear to GoTherm-a-Rest, PetzlSmartwool, Black Diamond, Osprey, Marmot, and Sterling Rope were among the sponsors of the 2017 River Leaders trip and their contributions will support this initiative going forward.  

“As the outdoor industry focuses on diversifying the workforce, we felt it was important to also include the veteran perspective in this conversation,” says SYFLA participant Jake Wheeler, sales executive at RootsRated. Other team members included Katie Hawkins, Robert Thomas, and Erin Weimer 

ADDRESSING THE ISSUES

The SYFLA project culminated in the creation of the River Leaders program, which the organizers hope grows into an annual event. This rafting trip in Big Bend National Park brought together 10 qualified military veterans seeking careers in the outdoor industry and 10 leaders from the outdoor industry, many of whom were veterans themselves.

Photos courtesy of Jake Wheeler

“The objective was to connect veterans with outdoor industry professionals and create a network that can support each other,” says Cat Suen, a LEAF (Law Enforcement and Armed Services) dealer service rep for Arc’Teryx and one of the industry professionals who came on the trip. “There might be a certain bias against veterans during the application process that I wasn’t aware of before. There’s this whole community that is untapped as a resource by the outdoor industry, and they have so much to offer. This trip was really eye opening.”  

While floating between the 1,500-foot walls of the Santa Elena Canyon and sitting around a fire under the light of an early December super moon, the military veterans and seasoned outdoor industry professionals talked about how to better convey their skillsets to civilian employers and land their dream jobs. The group also tackled how the industry can better relate to veterans interested in joining its workforce.   

The participants floated (no pun intended) ideas such as outdoor industry-sanctioned job fairs on military bases, where industry recruiters would get a better sense of what soon-to-be veterans can offer and soldiers would get exposure to the many outdoor-related opportunities in the civilian world they might not realize exist. Similarly, much like they do with college students approaching graduation, outdoor industry brands and retailers could reach out directly to enlistees approaching their discharge dates.

On the flip side, the group acknowledged that veterans can do a better job of conveying how their experiences in the military relate to any given civilian job description. They spent time sharing ideas about how to communicate those experiences to prospective employers. Finally, they noted the value of mentorship from both sides. Veterans already working in the industry should make themselves visible and available to job-hunters, and job-hunters should seek career guidance and mentorship from vets who have gone before them. 

“There really are quite a few veterans in the outdoor industry, but I think there could certainly be a lot more,” says the outdoor industry’s most passionate and elevated voice for veterans’ affairs, Stacy Bare, the former director for Sierra Club Outdoors who recently left to join The Phoenix. “Veterans bring a diverse experience, new thoughts, hard work, and diversity to the workforce—as well as values of service and loyalty. The outdoor industry is looking for a great workforce, veterans can be it.” 

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Source: Jill Sanford/Outdoor Industry Association
Photos courtesy of Jake Wheeler