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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Operation Green

Air Date: Week of

Former cavalry scout Michael Farnum pulls up invasive plants. (Photo: George Cavallo)

American soldiers returning from war often struggle to readjust to civilian life. Today, many veterans are turning to environmental work and activism to make the transition. Host Jeff Young talks with veterans working for clean energy, creating green jobs, and healing their own wounds by restoring habitats.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

YOUNG: And I’m Jeff Young. We continue our observation of Earth Day at 40 with the connections between the environment and war. At the time of the first Earth Day, U.S. combat troops had been in Vietnam five years. The nation was growing weary of a war with no clear purpose, no clear exit and escalating costs. Senator Gaylord Nelson tapped into that sentiment in a speech the evening of April 21st 1970, with an appeal to put anywhere from 25 to 50 billion dollars toward the environment instead of war.

NELSON: People say that’s a lot of money, I say yes it is; the first figure is about the amount we’re wasting in Vietnam now, annually. And the second figure is half the national defense budget.

CURWOOD: The parallels with Earth Day 2010 are striking. As in 1970, young Americans returning from war sometimes struggle to readjust to civilian life. And a growing number of those coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan are making that transition via the environment. We’ll hear from young warriors working for cleaner energy, protecting our landscape, and healing their own wounds through contact with the natural world.

YOUNG: We start in Washington State, with an innovative program called the Veterans Conservation Corps. Counselor Mark Fischer helped create the program five years ago, inspired by a Vietnam vet from Seattle named John Beal.

Dan Leary visits a Nexamp solar installation project. (Photo: Jeff Young)

FISCHER: John had a couple of tours in Vietnam and he came back and he had a number of medical problems, cancer, diabetes—a variety of things—and his doctors gave him six months to live. So he went down to a little creek that runs by his house, Ham Creek, and saw all the crap and junk, and invasive weeds in that creek.

And he said well, if I’ve only got six months to live, I might as well do something with my time. He started pulling out old refrigerators and starting to remove invasive vegetation and replant things. And 26 years later, John died.

YOUNG: So, he threw himself into restoring a little stream, that’s what he wanted to do in what he thought was the waning months of his life?

FISCHER: Right. And John during the next 26 years spent a lot of time recruiting other veterans to do habitat restoration and got a lot of people involved, a lot of folks around the Seattle area involved, and that’s kind of how that all came to pass.

YOUNG: Well, what do you think Mr. Beal gained from that work? He was given just a few months to live and ended up living two decades. Was that related to the work her threw himself into?

FISCHER: It’s something we talk about a lot—it’s creating a new mission or purpose in life. The original mission of most military folks is fairly clean to them, and then when they come back into civilian life they don’t really always connect up with another mission and so we try to in our work try to help people find a new mission or purpose that gives them that energy to continue on in life and be productive. And usually if they find it, they’re gangbusters; it’s hard to stop them, it’s hard to keep them from going forward.

YOUNG: So now, it’s veterans returning from Iraq, from Afghanistan, and what kind of work are they doing now with your program?

FISCHER: Well, some of them are engaged in volunteer work, but we are really looking at job creation in green fields, as well as other kinds of work. A lot of them are attracted to green jobs, they understand that purpose and that mission is pretty clear to them. So, we have a number of folks who’ve entered colleges in natural resources programs, energy auditing, weatherization, alternative energy—a variety of things that speaks to them in terms of providing a new mission in their life.

The Vet Corps program, it’s really just another example of vets helping other vets, and that’s really what this is about. All my field coordinators who work out in the community are veterans and they just love both the nature but also helping other veterans. So that’s big part of the mission, too.

YOUNG: Just getting outside and working and being surrounded by the smell and the feel of that place. It must just help them come home?

FISCHER: Absolutely. A lot of them talk about that. They’re really happy to be out of the desert, and really happy to be around green and trees and water, and things that smell and taste a whole lot different than they experienced in Iraq or Afghanistan. So that in itself is welcoming and healing for them.

YOUNG: Mark Fischer of the Veterans Conservation Corps. He says about a thousand veterans in Washington have participated in ecological restoration work so far.


YOUNG: Producer Tom Banse caught up with three of them hacking away at brambles outside of Tacoma.

FARNUM: My name is Michael Farnum. I’m retired from the United States
Army 22 years, I was a cavalry scout, reconnaissance soldier. We’re doing some invasive species removal in an area in the Nisqually Indian tribe lands. It is just a giant blackberry patch. We’re really close to the highway as you probably can hear.

[SOUNDS OF CUTTING, HACKING “There’s a few salmonberries in there, so be careful...”]

FARNUM: Over 22 years, I got beat up, banged up, blown up several times. Things just don’t work as well as they used to. It kind of hurts to get up in the morning. I eat Motrin like it’s going out of style and try to get through the day. This helps loosen me up, keeps me somewhat fresh, works my muscles. I’m not stuck behind a computer just yet.


FARNUM: Another kind of piece that went along with this, they call it eco-therapy. I think a good majority of veterans, combat veterans and non-combat veterans, when they get out, they want some solace, some peace.

Former Army truck driver Robin Eckstein. (Courtesy of Operation Free)

GRISHAM: My name is Jeremy Grisham. And I served in the Navy for 12 years as a hospital corpsman. Eight of those years I served with the Marine Corps. I was medically retired in 2005 after my deployment to Iraq.


GRISHAM: I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder. I guess they’re intertwined. You know, before I was working with the VCC, I would stay at home all the time. I was in a pattern of kind of self-hate and stuff like that. So I was in self-destructive behavior I guess.

Doing this sort of thing, like this sort of labor, gives me a chance to get exercise, a little workout, and kind of let some aggression go, let some steam off or whatever. It just—it’s helpful because when I’m having a bad day, instead of cutting myself or thinking about suicide or something, I have an outlet. Maybe I’ll go chop blackberries and vent some frustration, you know, or maybe just go for a walk. But, it helps me think about other options.


HANSEN: My name is Phil Hansen. I served in the U.S. Army for ten years. I was in the airborne infantry and then the infantry for about ten years. I got medically discharged in 2006. Finding a support group like the Veterans Conservation Corps with Mark
Fischer has probably been immensely helpful.

Creating a bond with the group of people here now, is kind of going to be a life long bond like I had with the brothers that I had, that I served with in Iraq. Being in a third world country and seeing how they live and then coming back and worrying about your Starbucks in the morning. Then you kind of realize how petty and insignificant that is to living. That’s been a big hurdle for me and a lot of people I know. Yeah, it just puts life into a different context for you.


HANSEN: Coming through, removing invasives, planting natural shrubs and wildflowers and trees and things like that that belong here in the first place, and having that there’s kind of an instant gratification you get from knowing that you’re creating something that has pretty much been neglected and probably destroyed by us in the past. It’s therapeutical.

MAN: Lunch?

MAN 2: Now on to important business!


YOUNG: Members of the Veterans Conservation Corps in Washington. Other veterans are coming home with strong views about the energy we use and the wars we wage.


YOUNG: Workers with the company Nexamp install solar panels on a rooftop in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Company president and co-founder Dan Leary looks on.

LEARY: We only put you on the steepest roofs.

YOUNG: It’s a far cry from Dan Leary’s last job—he was an Army captain stationed in Kuwait. Leary says what he saw in the desert left him determined to start a clean energy company back home.

LEARY: Nexamp is a full service clean energy integration company and we do everything from construction to life cycle maintenance of these systems and what we’re specifically building a lot of these days is solar electric and solar hot water systems. We’re building wind turbines. We’re building a lot of geothermal systems. We’re doing energy efficient lighting systems. Also, combined heat and power systems.

The biodiesel Operation Free bus has crisscrossed the country to spread the veteran-based message of energy independence. (Courtesy of Operation Free)

YOUNG: Do you feel like you came back from the war especially fired up about clean energy?

LEARY: I was. I was. And I think it’s important for our generation to get on top of this because I think anything that we can do to bring better security to our nation is less task that frankly our children and our grandchildren are going to have to deal with. Energy and water and a whole number of things that lead ultimately back to we just have to have more sustainable practices as a society.

YOUNG: Do you get a sense that your fellow veterans have had a kind of awakening about energy issues?

LEARY: I think that we all have. I think that veterans have been able to see it firsthand, what is sustainable and what’s not sustainable. As soon as you’ve seen a massive desalinization plant running on oil that has to be pumped from thousands of feet below the ground to sustain large populations you understand just how fragile the whole system is. And think that’s what veterans certainly understand firsthand and the more that we can generate onsite it does things that more than just national security, it’s really just the right thing to do.


YOUNG: Leary’s not alone in that thinking. A recent poll of Iraq and Afghanistan vets found an overwhelming majority see our energy policy undermining national security.
And just over 70 percent support policy changes to promote clean energy and address climate change. The poll was sponsored by the group Vote Vets, which is also part of a rolling public outreach program called Operation Free.


YOUNG: Operation Free’s bus—powered by biodiesel—has rolled through 22 states so far, drumming up support for legislation on clean energy and climate change. We got on the bus to talk with Army vet Robin Eckstein of Wisconsin, Marine vet Matt Victoriano of Arkansas, and Navy vet Wade Barnes of Massachusetts. Barnes says he had an epiphany while watching his ship refuel.

BARNES: It takes one million gallons of diesel at a shot. When you watch diesel fuel flow through a one and a half foot diameter pipe for four hours under high pressure, and you realize that’s something that’s done every seven to ten days, it doesn’t take a lot to kind of extrapolate that out and think about that same flow going through each of our fuel pumps, into our vehicles, things like that.

And when I learned through Operation Free that we’re really transferring one billion dollars a day overseas to fuel our oil addiction, it really hammered it home. That really was probably the turning point for me.

YOUNG: Robin, same question for you, what was it about your experience in Iraq that you think motivated what you’re doing now?

Former Marine, Matt Victoriano. (Courtesy of Operation Free)

ECKSTEIN: I was part of the logistical nightmare that the military deals with because of our energy policy. I drove in convoys everyday, all around Baghdad, hauling fuel and water, and every time I left the gates of Baghdad International Airport it was a role of the dice of whether what I was going to encounter that day. You know, whether it was going to be sniper fire, ambushed, IEDs, was anyone going to be shot or killed so that I could be this huge, slow moving target hauling this fuel and water to get to these various outposts. I mean, if these other forward operating bases had solar generators, that’d be less mission that I would have to pull.

And so it was really important for me to make sure that we move in that positive direction. Because I don’t want to see other truck drivers in the future having to die over something that we can do something about.

YOUNG: I think a lot of people will understand the connection with dependence on foreign oil undermining our national security, but climate change might not be so obvious, how do you explain that to people?

ECKSTEIN: You know as far as climate change goes I listen to my chain of command. The Pentagon, the DOD and CIA are all on board with this. They’re saying it’s true, and I’m sorry, the CIA isn’t known for hugging trees and saving polar bears.

They specifically list climate change as an accelerant to the instability of nations. Current we can see in Afghanistan and Somalia where climate change has disrupted these areas that were already unstable in the first place. It’s accelerated the problems with famine and drought and the areas become breeding grounds for terrorists.

YOUNG: You know the conversation around climate change and cap and trade type approach to dealing with greenhouse gases has become very politicized. Do you think that you’re able to, I don’t know, sort of do an end run around the partisanship that’s become associated with this issue because you’re approaching it as veterans?

Jeremy Grisham clears invasive brush as part of therapy for PTSD. (Photo: George Cavallo)

VICTORIANO: Our message gets louder traction because we are veterans, but I also truly believe this issue transcends partisan politics. When you come at this from a national security standpoint, you’re talking about an issue that everyone can get behind.

ECKSTEIN: This isn’t a left issue. This isn’t a right issue. This is an American issue. We want to secure our energy future and make America No. 1 again, and we can do that by passing comprehensive clean energy legislation.

YOUNG: The bus stops at an American Legion hall in Wrentham, Massachusetts, where a few dozen people, mostly men in their 50s and up, sip coffee and listen to Robin. She tries to bridge the generation gap here with a reference to World War II.

ECKSTEIN: America really came together during World War II. People were at their own home creating these victory gardens. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have our own victory gardens by having these solar array fields, by having wind turbine places? Have those be our victory gardens. Have that energy be here in the United States, that money here, those jobs here.

YOUNG: Peter Baker, who calls himself a Cold War veteran, speaks up.

BAKER: I run a small little business and I could easily retool to make solar panels. There are some things going on and I’m proud of my country. I want it to stay proud. I don’t know what the heck to tell my grandchildren. I don’t know what to tell my sons what to do, where to go. Well, there’s something we can get on board and that’s what we’re here for is to get people off their duffs and do something about it. Thanks.


YOUNG: After a lively Q&A period it’s back to the bus and on to the next town.
Matt Victoriano says the response in Wrentham is typical of what he’s hearing from people around the country—deep concern about national security and economic uncertainty and a general anxiety about where the country’s headed.

VICTORIANO: They have a hard time looking at their grandkids and making sure that they’re going to be secure when they grow up and have kids on their own. We spend billions and billions of dollars on oil subsidies on foreign jobs. We get 60 percent of our oil from overseas. We have a manufacturing sector that has dwindled. They see the jobs going overseas and they say what can we do.

And this is absolutely a way to bring those jobs back, bring the money back. They hear a message and they can go home and tell their grandkids, yeah, there is hope for you in the future.

YOUNG: Do you see this as a sort of continuation of your service to your country?

Veterans clear invasive species in Washington. (Photo: George Cavallo)

VICTORIANO: We didn’t stop our service to the country once we took off our uniform. We carry that same patriotism, that same dedication in our hearts wherever we go. I did see 19-year-old marines crying with holes in their body and blood coming out and it’s my responsibility to keep on doing what I can to protect them and make sure that their best interests are always taken into account. All veterans want to keep on serving their country once their service in the military is over and this is—you can’t find a better way to do it than this.


[MUSIC: Van Morrison “Brand New Day” from Moondance (Warner Bros 1970)]

YOUNG: There’s more about these veterans programs and green jobs for vets at our web site l-o-e dot org.




Veterans Green Jobs

Veterans Conservation Corp

Operation Free

Vote Vets


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