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One Marine Reflects on his time with the Sierra Club

Hooch and LemkeThank you to our guest blogger and former staff team member Mark Lemke, a Marine, for reaching out to share a description about the path he took to graduate school in social work and his plans for using the outdoors to help make a better world for those going through the challenges of life, veterans and non-veterans alike. Mark was part of our team for half of 2011...and we miss him! Mark, we know you're making the world a better place!

We all make choices in life that have profound consequences on the life paths we chose. I find myself thinking about this often while walking my dog Hooch in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The choices I made took me from Indiana to North Carolina where I served at Cherry Point as a Marine. After the Marines, like many before me, I met a girl and moved. I followed her to Asheville in 2008. My discovery of the Blue Ridge Parkway changed my view on the world. After finishing an undergraduate degree at the University of North Carolina at Asheville in 2011, I was accepted into the apprenticeship program with the Sierra Club. I was the first apprentice for Sierra Club Outdoors, before it was even called Sierra Club Outdoors. That 6-months in DC with SCO eventually lead me to my current destination.

In September of 2011 saw SCO staff and volunteers lobbying members of Congress on the importance of connecting veterans and children to the outdoors for numerous reasons, namely public health and how nature helps wounded and returning veterans. I was with the delegation of former military members and their testimonies planted a seed in my head. I eventually finished my time at the Sierra Club and moved back to Asheville, NC to figure out my future. I worked at therapeutic boarding school for teenage boys and was exposed to case management and group therapy. The seed began to sprout and take hold, the larger picture appeared.  

The Sierra Club forced to me to take a more intimate look at what it meant to be a veteran. Friends of mine knew that I was in the Marines, but it was never a focal point of conversation, thus old memories began to fade into obscurity. The Marines I met speaking before Congress on that trip painted a picture of how nature is such an important catalyst for healing. I was finally able to connect the dots and realize how the Blue Ridge Mountains helped me transition into civilian life.

In 2013, I made the decision to attend graduate school to pursue my Masters of Social Work. This was a total fundamental shift from my environmental past, but in many ways they go hand in hand. SCO taught me how rock climbing, fly-fishing or a quiet drive on a parkway is therapeutic and can be used to help people overcome trauma and addiction. Now there are many more components to helping veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and/or substance abuse than the actives described above. But it proves to be a powerful medium and a solid foundation for those veterans trying to sew their lives back together.

I’m about to enter my second and final year of graduate school at East Tennessee State University. During my first year I concentrated on substance abuse and not to my surprise I’ll be doing that at my second year internship. In a funny, but not so odd turn of events I’ll be at the Charles George Veterans Association Hospital in Asheville, NC. I’ll be working with veterans who are in inpatient treatment for addiction, which many are suffering from mental illness. Self-medicating has become the new norm for many who have experienced trauma, veteran and civilian alike. The seed is begining to blossom and hopefully in the near future will begin to bear fruit.

Next time you’re in nature take the time and reflect how decisions take us places. Take off the headphones and put the phone in your pocket, simply take in your surroundings. The decision to apply to the Sierra Club Apprenticeship Program made me revaluate my values.

I would like to thank Stacy Bare and Jackie Ostfeld for their guidance while I was in Washington, D.C.              

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