Conservationists make the case that veterans can have a career in the environment and a home in nature.
Fred Napoleon is the first to arrive at the ranch. Nicely dressed in a sweater and carrying boxed wine as a hospitality gift, he’s the only one whose flight to Montana wasn’t delayed.
Napoleon, a retired Army soldier who deployed in the first Gulf War, is one of 11 veterans gathering at Pine Butte—a remote former guest ranch in western Montana now owned by The Nature Conservancy. He sits in the kitchen as the organizers of this gathering, a fly-fishing retreat, scurry around making lunch sandwiches and final preparations.
Outside, it’s calmer. There’s dense white smoke to the west from the forest fires burning this August. It obscures the afternoon sun over the mountains of the Bob Marshall Wilderness—a spread of more than 1 million acres of forests, alpine lakes and meadows. This is grizzly bear country, and one of the organizers hands Napoleon a can of bear spray before directing him to his sleeping cabin.
Back in the kitchen, the three organizers scramble. They are TNC staffers, but everything they’re doing here is on top of their day jobs: Brent Lathrop, who served in the Army as a reservist from the Vietnam era through the Gulf War, is a director of TNC’s work in southeast Wyoming. Kaylee Kenison is a former Iraq War medic who handles operations for TNC’s Montana chapter. Michelle Kotulski, an e-learning developer and the wife of a career Marine, flew all the way from Hawaii and has been awake for 36 hours straight.
They’re part of a larger team that has taken on something of a second job advocating for veterans who work for TNC and helping connect the organization with veterans in general. They call themselves Veterans in Nature’s Service, or VINS for short, and they’re one of several specialized employee groups that have emerged at the organization in the past seven years.
This week the group is partnering with a veterans’ service organization called Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing to bring former military personnel to this corner of Montana for a guided fly-fishing retreat. Project Healing Waters teaches veterans living with disabilities how to tie flies and catch fish at similar gatherings all over the United States. This week, they have been invited to fish the preserve, but it is only the second such retreat TNC has hosted. It’s a test of sorts—two communities figuring out how to work together and what they can offer each other. The dreams are big on both sides: Project Healing Waters is looking for more places for its members to practice fishing as a form of therapy. The Conservancy wants to connect veterans to the landscapes it has protected, and, while doing so, recruit more veterans into conservation work.
Easier said than done, Kotulski says. In Hawaii, she once walked into a career fair room of 600 veterans and only three had heard of TNC.