Watching a family bond through a shared outdoor experience is always special, as it reminds you of the power of nature and how it can bring people together. But to see military families, who have served and sacrificed to protect our nation, is truly inspiring and humbling. Our family was honored to participate in an Operation Purple Camp at the Teton Science School in Jackson, Wyoming on the 4th of July weekend.
Our trip down to the Grand Tetons was filled with wildlife-spotting and natural beauty, and I will always remember Amelie calling a coyote who ran by our car ‘Mocha’, thinking it was our pet dog! The natural beauty of Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons is majestic. From the Geysers to the picturesque peaks, it gave us such a sense of place before we even met all of the military families.
As we met the military families I was blown away by the diversity of the group. I could see that the saying, The military is the epitome of American diversity, rings true. Military families are dealing with so much, as we have been in a constant state of conflict since 9/11. Over a million men and women have been deployed, and this has taken a toll on our veterans and our military families. Currently 18 veterans a day commit suicide and the divorce rate is 20% above the national average. As we started to learn our first day about the life military families are dealing with, many spoke of being deployed over three times in the past five years, meaning they had missed countless Little League games, bedtime stories and other family adventures. You can’t take back time, and that is one of the many reasons why I respect military families and view them as our country’s backbone. They sacrifice in order for all of us to have normal lives. This is the definition of service, and military families are the shining example of it.
Our first outdoor adventure was a hike and canoe trip with the military families to Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park. The Teton Science School (TSS), which is a wonderful host of the family camp, led the adventures. As we bussed over, I observed all the smiles on the faces of the military kids. The age range was from 8-17 in our group and it was incredible to see how confident all of the children were and how they listened and respected all direction that was given. Once we were hiking, the pace picked up and the singing started as our Marine and Army families competed in singing hiking songs, I have to say the Marine songs are pretty intense!
As we hiked further, I heard less and less but saw the families bond in unique ways. I saw one family from Utah all start to hold hands. Another family from Southern California played a plant identification game. The one constant among all the families was smiles and laughter. I asked one of the fathers, an Army medic who had served two tours in Iraq, what this meant to his family, and he said simply, “we are having time together without the distraction of the TV or dealing with the stress of every day life. We are getting to know each other again, and the outdoors is what is connecting us.” He then turned and looked at the grand view the Tetons provide. He pointed to them and said, “This is what we fought for, to protect these places, as they are America”.
Our last day was July 4th at the Military Family Camp. We had the opportunity to go bird-banding at Grand Teton National Park. It was a great omen when we saw a bald eagle perched high above on a cliff as we walked into the bird sanctuary. All of the kids were a bit tired from the five straight days of activities but the minute they saw the bird banding taking place they were following the bird biologists around as if they were pied pipers. This is where we had the best moment of my Family Camp experience. A young man around 10 was walking with his dad. He looked at him and said, “You know, Dad, I really like this.”
His dad, a Marine officer, replied, “If you get your grades up you can become a wildlife biologist.”
His son smiled and said “I will, Dad”. This may not sound like a big deal but it highlighted for me the connection between our natural world and military families. There is an innocence and pace to the natural world that can help provide the environment needed to sustain and support military families through the difficult times they have faced over the past decade.
As we left the Family Camp at the Tetons I was truly amazed at the courage shown by our military families. They do not feel any burden, but instead look at themselves as providing the service to help protect our country. I also came away amazed by the effect nature can have in giving our nation’s unsung heroes the time and place to reconnect together. They are truly the backbone of our nation.