I looked around the campfire circle and sighed with relief. I did not have to explain myself, my anger, my frustration, my hopes or my dreams, or even apologize for the jokes that were coming out of my mouth that others may think of as offensive or off color. These people got it. Around this campfire were other men and women who were both not at all like me while also being exactly the same. We were all military veterans. We had all served. We had all struggled in some way or another in the transition from active duty to active citizenship. We had all dealt with stereotypes, some of which we perhaps perpetuated ourselves, most however, that were deeply misunderstood or dangerous characterizations of who we were. We had all fielded inane, even offensive questions about our military service from others who knew little about what we had done other than by way of television or movies. We tried out some replies with each other:
“You understand what it was like to serve because you pledged a fraternity or sorority?”
“You would have joined the military but, since you couldn’t be a Navy SEAL, you thought better of it?”
“You were third team all-county in football so you just know you would have been a Ranger, eh?”
We all had each other roaring in laughter.
It isn’t, honestly, that other people can’t understand or interact with, or help veterans. Sometimes it feels that way, but the reality is that non-veterans are a critical component to the transition of any veteran. There are a lot of times where it is important to ensure that those campfires, real or metaphorical, include non-veteran voices—but sometimes it’s absolutely necessary, or it sure felt like it was for me, to have those places that were at times 100% veteran. For the most part, society recognizes the value in that for veterans and even some groups of folks in various stages of recovery from alcoholism or addiction.
It was this experience and others like it that led me to my belief that what some call affinity groups, however people want to define them, are, from time to time, a good thing. I don’t think it is helpful to spend your whole life cocooned only in these kind of spaces—that doesn’t serve anyone in the long run and creates more problems than solutions. I am thankful for those opportunities however, often at the encouragement of my wife and close friends who are not veterans, to temporarily step into an all veteran space, even if the differences outside of our military service may seem insurmountable to outsiders looking in.
I was excited when my friend Aparna reached out to me about a project she and a number of others were working on to create what could be called an affinity group gathering for people of color, the global majority outside of the United States, who worked in the outdoor industry.
Having relied on the support of veterans and non-veterans alike for years to create similar experiences for veterans to connect to one another, grow, heal, or do whatever they need to do and then come back into the larger non-veteran world with new friends, new ideas, and even new skills to rely on, I was excited to be in a position to support Aparna and her colleagues and the larger PGM One Conference they were organizing through my work at Sierra Club Outdoors.
Not once did I think of inviting myself to the conference any more than I would invite Aparna to a veteran only camping trip even though Aparna has been an ally of the veteran community for years through her work first at NOLS and now at the Avarna Group. There are plenty of opportunities for me to see and hangout with Aparna and others who will be at the conference in what are often incredibly white spaces, and while we’re at it, not always the most veteran friendly spaces.
There are also plenty of opportunities for me to camp and play outdoors with only veterans, or to camp and play with people of color, and even other opportunities to invite Aparna into my veteran community and vice versa—but I realized there was no one place or opportunity for people of color to hang out just with other people of color.
I’m excited for the PGM One conference and for the participants to hopefully have a similar kind of empowering, community building experience as I have had in my veteran only expeditions. I look forward to hearing from participants about what they learned, what they dreamed, and what they’re planning to do next—sometimes no doubt with me and other times without.