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Service members help restore habitat

JBLM Conservation Ecologist

Published: 11:33AM August 15th, 2016

BY DENNIS

AUBREY BUCKINGHAM

JBLM Conservation Ecologist

Joint Base Lewis-McChord is pairing wounded warriors and other transitioning service members with habitat restoration, rare species conservation and ecological science.

Over the last two years, 37 active-duty service members have interned with Environmental Warfighter program, offered through JBLM Directorate of Public Works (Environmental Division, Fish and Wildlife branch) and Colorado State University’s Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands.

Most of the work is done on JBLM’s 90,000 acres of contiguous habitat, but participants have also helped on restoration projects with nonmilitary groups around the installation’s perimeter. To the south, the service members worked with long-term partner and neighbor of the installation, the Nisqually Tribe and Nisqually Land Trust to restore a critical salmon-bearing tributary in a shared watershed.

To the northwest, they collaborated with the Washington National Guard at Camp Murray, including those in JBLM’s western bluebird nest-box program and undertaking headwater projects to ensure year-round stream flow on Murray Creek.

On the northeastern side of JBLM, interns worked with Washington State University’s Puyallup Research and Extension Center to restore a sensitive wetland area.

Active-duty interns also have the opportunity to work with biologists stationed at JBLM, participating in species surveys, reintroductions and ecological research. Furthermore, student volunteers from seven local colleges join service members in the field nearly daily, creating an unusual teaching relationship. Service members are instructing students in how to conduct restoration work on the ground. Students share their current studies of environmental science and help the service members understand the opportunity that college represents.

For those ready to use their GI Bill, college application and scholarship support is provided. To date, JBLM has four program graduates enrolled in college — three studying environmental science. Others have fledged from the program and are finding success using the skills garnered here: one works at an outdoor education facility for adjudicated youth, another is employed by the state of Kansas as a foreman on environmental projects.

Another benefit of the program is its ability to provide eco-therapy to combat veterans. Increasing evidence supports the effectiveness of outdoor recreation and employment in addressing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Interns have said things to program leaders that could never have been anticipated.

“I love this stuff, man,” said a veteran in a driving February sleet-storm. “Wind and rain don’t matter — I just love being out here. Putting up these boxes, helping out some wood ducks, this is awesome to me.”

Another, after spending all day on hands and knees, planting prairie plugs for an endangered Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly reintroduction site, said “When I get settled on my property in Tennessee, I’m going to make some butterfly habitat like this on the hill behind my house.”

And then there are the quotes that have nothing to do with caring for rare species at all.

“I think my memory’s coming back,” said a Soldier through watering eyes. “It’s weird, you know? I’ve been having these really peaceful dreams lately. I joined the Army to serve my country, but I feel like it’s all been selfish. Before I got hurt, all I ever did was train. I feel like I’m finally serving my

country.”

These interns are heroes. They have put their lives on the line to protect this country and this is just another way they have found to continue that selfless dedication. After all of their injuries and deployments, with only a few months remaining in the Army, they continue to serve.

They are out spending all day in all kinds of weather, restoring habitat and conserving species. Their successes are protecting the military mission by helping JBLM meet its environmental compliance goals and paving the way for the future involvement of more veterans in environmental science, according to JBLM Environmental Division officials.

The Environmental Warfighter program at JBLM is putting extra hands to work, mending bodies and minds and restoring habitat for rare species, all while building partnerships and helping veterans transition to meaningful civilian careers. The hope is to continue to develop this project and to share what we have learned, for the mutual benefit of service members and environmental efforts, at other installations nationwide.