I discovered the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT) in 2014, the longest of America’s great trails, as part of the Warrior Hike program to help military veterans “walk off” the effects of war.
My service in the Army from 2008-12 included time as an aviation officer and UH-60 Blackhawk Helicopter pilot , as well as a proud member of the 10th Mountain Division that deployed to Afghanistan to assist the Afghan people in securing their own country.
Re-entering civilian life after four and a half years, much of it on intense missions, I jumped at a chance to “get centered” while traveling the spectacular CDT, hiking along half of its 3,100 miles from the Mexican to Canadian border. Six months to heal and take in the beautiful America I had spent time defending.
Along the way across five states, I encountered deserts, dense forests, alpine lakes, wilderness, national monuments and parks, Colorado’s famed 14ers, and the most hospitable gateway communities providing food and respite.
The western states that are home to the CDT are a treasure of natural landscapes and welcoming people we are blessed to have in this country.
In Colorado I was privileged to speak at the Colorado Ski Museum in Vail with another member of the famed 10th Mountain Division, Sandy Treat Jr. Sandy, who recently passed last September at the age of 96, was a soldier stationed at the historic Camp Hale and fought in the Northern Italian Alps with the Division in World War II.
Sandy gave me a personal education about this place where the 10th Mountain Division trained to fight in mountainous and harsh winter conditions and how the men of the division helped lead our nation to victory in World War II.
The military takes its history seriously, and Sandy shared with me the legacy of my own division that can only be understood by someone who lived it.
People in Colorado also talked about the Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy (CORE) Act, which would protect nearly 29,000 acres surrounding Camp Hale as the first-ever National Historic Landscape, and preserve and promote the 10th Mountain Division’s storied legacy.
As the founder of the Global War on Terror Memorial Foundation, I am passionate about honoring the service and sacrifice of military veterans and was immediately drawn to the mission behind the CORE Act — which would not only memorialize Camp Hale, but protect some 400,000 acres of public land in Colorado, establishing new wilderness areas and securing existing outdoor recreation uses.
Hiking on the CDT, I was transformed by the peace and freedom of nature and came to know that we absolutely must preserve these cherished public lands and historic areas for future generations.
The CORE Act is actually a unification of four existing bills crafted with local governments and businesses, conservationists and sportsmen over a 10-year period: the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection piece would halt new oil and gas development in the Thompson Divide area; the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act designates some of the state’s most iconic peaks as wilderness; and the Continental Divide Recreation, Wilderness, and Camp Hale Legacy Act permanently protects about 100,000 acres of wilderness, recreation, and conservation areas including around Camp Hale.
All told, the CORE Act is an immensely important piece of legislation to ensure that much of Colorado’s untrammeled bounty, often within a few hours’ drive of residents, stays that way.
The CORE Act passed through the House last year and nine months later there’s been little movement getting it to the Senate floor. Most recently the bill was attached to a key defense spending bill that cleared the House, which may improve its chances of clearing Congress.
Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse have worked hard, first in introducing the CORE Act, and now taking next steps to get it enacted.
Having spent many of my waking hours in 2016 and 2017 seeing a bill passed in the U.S. Congress, I understand the hard work required to accomplish such a feat on Capitol Hill and believe Sen. Bennet, Rep. Neguse and their staffs deserve a great deal of recognition for supporting the effort thus far.
We all need the tonic of wildness as America’s great naturalist Henry David Thoreau once said. Everyone, from avid recreationists to weekend hikers to children, and certainly veterans.
While “walking off the war” I was captivated by Colorado’s beauty and history, looking up to the rugged San Juan Mountains, seeing Camp Hale – places that will continually be there for us through the CORE Act.
Hiking through Colorado on the CDT made me a more thoughtful and deliberate person; my time on the CDT helped me start being a better version of myself. Real healing and connection so often happen in nature, and Colorado’s got plenty of it.
It’s these public lands and the freedoms they represent that define the America I fought to defend, and that is what the CORE Act will defend as well. It will keep the very best of America’s outdoor playgrounds as a priceless source of peace and harmony for us all.
Andrew J. Brennan is a West Point graduate, Army veteran of Afghanistan and the founder of the Global War on Terror Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to funding and building the National GWOT Memorial on the National Mall, in Washington, D.C.
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