Tristan Persico

Tristan Persico

Courtesy Photo

Afghanistan war veteran Tristan Persico traded in his rifle for a good pair of hiking boots when he left the U.S. Air Force in 2011, and his forays leading vets into the Montana backcountry have gained notice in the years since.

Persico, a University of Montana student studying recreation management at the College of Forestry and Conservation, saw his efforts recognized Tuesday with a Champions of Change Award.

Persico and 13 other recipients were introduced by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell at Tuesday’s event, held at the Eisenhower Executive Building in Washington, D.C.

“While I was in Afghanistan, I longed for the peace and beauty of Montana’s wilderness,” said Persico. “When I returned home to Montana, I was lost and devastated. The only place I could find peace was in the wilderness.”

With his obligation to the Air Force complete, Persico – an explosive ordnance technician in the war – enrolled at UM, where he now leads the Montana Wilderness Association’s Veterans Outreach Program.

Applying his own belief that wilderness is therapy, he leads other combat vets in transition on hiking trips into the backcountry – places where peace and solitude reign supreme, allowing time for introspection and uncluttered thought.

“When I got out of the service, it was a rough patch,” said Persico. “Wilderness and primitive areas, that’s what brought me back to everything. The therapy values of wilderness are well studied and documented, and they’re undoubtedly a good thing for veterans to experience, and with other veterans.”

Efforts like the Vet to Vet program have employed similar tactics, using peer-to-peer counseling to help returning troops express their thoughts in a safe environment and among others who’ve shared similar experiences.

The peace and freedom found in wilderness, coupled with the peer-to-peer setting, helps combat veterans ease the difficult transition from war to life as a civilian.

“There are no limitations on what you can talk about when you’re with fellow vets, compared to others who haven’t been there,” Persico said.

The Champions of Change Award honors those who apply innovative methods to create opportunities for the next generation through outdoor recreation and conservation.

It’s a subject close to Persico’s own beliefs. Like anything else, he said, policies on land conservation will be driven by tomorrow’s voters, and he wants to get the younger generation involved.

“With the prevalence of nature deficit disorder we see with the younger generation, if we don’t expose them to the outdoors, when they get to be voting age, it won’t be an issue they care about,” he said. “Instilling that appreciation is one of the most important to me personally.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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