Connecting Veterans with Montana’s Wilderness Heritage

Tristan Persico

Tristan Persico is being honored as a Next Generation of Conservation Leaders Champion of Change.

At an early age, my father started bringing me to wild places to learn and explore. Dad instilled in me a sense of adventure; I always wanted to know what was around that next bend in the trail or what was over that next ridge. This is where my lifelong love of the outdoors began.

At age eighteen, I joined the United States Air Force and went through training to become an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician. Of the twenty Airmen who started the training with me, I was one of three to complete it. In 2009, I deployed to southern Afghanistan. While I was there, I constantly longed for the peace and beauty of Montana’s wilderness. Afghanistan was anything but peaceful and it was on a Saturday afternoon in September that tragedy struck. My closest friend was killed by an enemy attack.

When I returned home to Montana I was lost and devastated and the only place I could find peace was in the wilderness. I received an honorable discharge in 2011 and began to work towards the next chapter of my life. I soon found myself pursuing a degree in Parks, Tourism, and Recreation Management at the University of Montana and became involved with the Montana Wilderness Association. 

The Montana Wilderness Association (MWA) works with communities to protect Montana's wilderness heritage, quiet beauty and outdoor traditions, for present and future generations. Established in 1958, MWA is the nation’s oldest state-based grassroots wilderness advocacy organization and was instrumental to the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. The Montana Wilderness Association led the charge to create each of the 15 Wilderness areas in the state and secure Wild and Scenic designations for suitable stretches of the Flathead and Missouri rivers. Today, MWA continues to work tirelessly on behalf of Montana’s best places to hike, hunt, fish, and ride horseback by engaging new partners and communities to guarantee a wild future for iconic treasures like the Rocky Mountain Front, where the reefs and ramparts of the Continental Divide plunge down to meet the prairie.

In the spring of 2013, I joined forces with Zack Porter, MWA’s NexGen Wilderness Leaders Program Director. Together, we created a Veteran Outreach Program, which provides Montana’s veteran community with positive wilderness experiences. Through backcountry trips, stewardship projects, and educational opportunities on current wilderness policies and affairs, we are helping veterans connect with each other and Montana’s wilderness heritage. 

It is common knowledge that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder afflicts many veterans returning from service in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as veterans from previous wars. What many people do not realize is that one of the hardest parts of coping with PTSD for our service men and women once they leave the military is no longer being around people with the same history and experiences in a conflict zone. Wilderness is the perfect place for veterans to get together, tell stories around the campfire, and be around peers who understand what they have been through.

In the same way that my dad and other mentors encouraged me to develop a sense of awe for wild country and learn the skills of backcountry travel, I am proud to work with Montana’s veterans to build a community of conservation champions for the 21st century. 

Tristan Persico, Veterans Outreach Coordinator for the Montana Wilderness Association, lives in Missoula, Montana with his wife Lindsay and stepdaughters, Briger and Quincy. For more information about the Montana Wilderness Association Veteran Outreach Program, please contact Tristan Persico at tpersico@wildmontana.org.  

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