Growing up in Wisconsin, my family often took weekend camping trips to a nearby lake. We would wake up with the sun, roast marshmallows at dusk, and spend every hour in between on the water. I adored canoes and paddle boats as a child — the way they could carry us to the middle of a calm lake or down a rushing river. Boats could take me where my feet couldn’t go on their own.
During one summer, my family rented a houseboat and spent an entire week on the river. I saw my first great blue heron on that trip — a memory so clear because my Girl Scout troop was part of the Great Blue Heron Council. As a kid I loved the fun of the water. As an adult, the water of this nation helped heal me.
Many of those waterways I loved as a child, and adult, exist because of the work of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a bipartisan effort to protect and develop public spaces across the country. Founded in 1964, the LWCF costs taxpayers nothing but provides funding for everything from building neighborhood ball fields to conserving river networks and developing hiking trails.
In my home state of Wisconsin alone, the LWCF has granted $215 million of funding to protect public spaces, which is why I was shocked and disappointed to hear that Congress let authorization and funding for LWCF expire at the end of September, putting thousands of public projects at risk.
With my love of water and watercraft, it was no surprise that I joined the Navy after high school. I was deployed on a cruiser and two aircraft carriers — the biggest “boat” of them all — during my six years of service. While I was deployed to the Persian Gulf I would often retreat to the deck of the cruiser and watch the gentle movement of the water. With each cresting wave, I’d feel my mind refocus as the stress of the day dissipated. The water was a sorely needed reminder of both how immense and how connected the world was.
When I was ashore, stationed in Georgia, I would bike or run along trails in the LWCF-funded Augusta Canal Heritage Area. Service-connected injuries severely limited my ability to continue these activities after I left the Navy, so I returned to water sports. I fell in love with kayaking, an activity that gave me the restorative powers of the great outdoors, without the strain on my knees and lower back.
After I left naval service I returned to my home state of Wisconsin to earn my degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. There I took sailing lessons on Lake Michigan and hiked the Lapham Peak segment of the LWCF protected Ice Age Trail, a favorite jogging route of Speaker Paul Ryan as well. Now as a graduate student, I look to the outdoors as the opportunity to unplug, unwind, and reconnect to the nation I once so proudly served. Trading a computer screen for sunscreen, geocaching or kayaking in the nearest public space always leaves me reinvigorated.
I see the same restorative effects in my fellow veterans. As a project coordinator for a veterans organization, I led teams of veterans on service trips in national parks, giving these men and women the opportunity both to connect with and continue to serve their country and fellow citizens.
The land and water of this nation have been a constant through an often-transitory life. Public spaces were a critical part of my childhood, my transition from military service, and my adult life. The lakes, parks, and rivers of this nation have offered me adventure, peace and recovery, which is why I join seven of the eight representatives from Wisconsin in urging Speaker Paul Ryan to put H.R. 502, a bipartisan bill to permanently reauthorize and fund the LWCF, to a vote during the lame-duck congressional session. Publicly protected lands have served me and my fellow veterans. Now it’s time for all of us to speak up and serve them.
Rebecca Patterson is a post 9/11 veteran from Wisconsin completing her Master of Public Health in Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Maryland. She intends to focus her career on veteran health outcomes related to environmental and occupational exposures during military service.
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