Opinion Columns & Blogs

Saving national parks so they can help save more veterans

Lornett Vestal enjoying the outdoors that he credits with bringing him back from depression after serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Lornett Vestal enjoying the outdoors that he credits with bringing him back from depression after serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Upon returning as a veteran from Operation Iraqi Freedom, I had a difficult time adjusting to life at home and college. After some time, I realized that I had never really dealt with the trauma of my childhood and that my tour of duty had only amplified that trauma. Then one day, a college friend of mine invited me to join him in a sweat lodge at Big River State Forest in Illinois — an experience that profoundly changed my life.

I found that time spent in nature — in places like our national parks — improved my mental well being, social skills and resiliency. Being outdoors provided me with the best possible therapy, slowly but steadily relieving the stress, insomnia and depression that had taken over my life. Now, I assist fellow veterans in getting them outdoors in nature. That is why I want every veteran to have the opportunity to visit and enjoy our national parks at their best.

Unfortunately, some of these special places need help, too. Our National Park System has an estimated $11.3 billion in backlogged deferred maintenance that contributes to challenging trails, closed campgrounds, roads and bridges in disrepair and deteriorating historic structures.

The National Park Service manages and protects 156 parks that commemorate military history, including 25 national battlefields, 14 national cemeteries, and about 500 fortifications and earthworks — the maintenance backlog in the National Parks System is $6 billion. The NPS facilities and maintenance teams work tirelessly to make sure these assets are maintained to honor our country’s history, natural beauty and those who fought to protect it. But high visitation and inadequate federal funding have left them struggling to keep up and visitor experiences significantly diminished.

The good news is that bipartisan legislation, the National Park Service Legacy Act (S. 751/H.R. 2584), has been introduced in Congress that would create a dedicated funding source to the address deferred maintenance backlog, including repairs to those sites devoted to military heritage and history.

In Georgia, we have numerous sites that commemorate the military and our values. Fort Frederica on St. Simons Island, which helped forge the United States’ future as a thriving democracy, needs over $2 million to be restored; Andersonville National Historic Site, memorializing U.S. prisoners of war, has $12 million in infrastructure needs; the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, which honors the great civil rights leader, has over $13 million of deferred maintenance.

More than one-third of NPS sites commemorate veterans and interpret military history. Congress and the administration must invest in our national parks to ensure the sacrifices our veterans made will never be forgotten.

Please join me in calling on Congress to honor military service by passing the National Park Service Legacy Act to ensure the sacrifices and stories of veterans will not be forgotten.

Lornett Vestal served in the United States Navy. He now resides in Atlanta and leads groups of veterans on outdoor exhibitions in coordination with the Sierra Club Military Outdoors Southeast Chapter.