Editor’s Note: This commentary was submitted by Josh Bunce, a member of the Vet Voice Foundation.
JOSH BUNCE/Vet Voice Foundation
I am proud to be a veteran of the U.S. Army. I served in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2006 and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2008. I’m home in California now, studying mathematics and philosophy at the University of Riverside, and settling back into civilian life. As many of my fellow veterans have experienced, coming home after a tour of duty presents a unique set of challenges.
As I make the transition from soldier to student, I’ve found that spending time in the outdoors provides me with a much-needed sense of peace and solace. I’m better able to reflect on the journey I’ve taken away from the hubbub of everyday life, classes, traffic, and the noise of the city. I find this tranquility in the California desert.
Just recently, I went on a tour of the desert in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties with a group of veterans. Early on a Sunday morning we gathered at Whitewater Canyon Preserve – a get-together that included a Cold War-era veteran as well as those who, like me, served more recently.
Over the day, we traveled through Yucca Valley and then further north, stopping at Amboy Crater – which lies within the boundaries of the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument. We ate lunch at Kelso Depot within the Mojave National Preserve and then continued on to visit the proposed Soda Mountains Wilderness Area. Before the end of the day, we paused at the Afton Canyon overlook near I-15, another site within the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument.
During this tour, I learned that the desert is not only an incredible place to visit, but also an important economic driver for the region. Each year, people spend $230 million visiting the California desert region. Spending by visitors to Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks and the Mojave National Preserve alone supports over 1,000 jobs. This investment from travel and tourism to the California desert is critical to our economy, still recovering as it is.
I returned from our trip dusty but satisfied in a day well spent. I felt a sense of calm and appreciation for being able to spend time with my fellow veterans who know what it’s like to serve our country. I found a place of healing and understanding and I returned more committed than ever to protecting California’s desert and other public lands so that we may all enjoy these special places.
That’s why I’m urging the newly elected Congressman Raul Ruiz to be a leader for protecting the California desert and public lands. I ask him to prioritize legislation that will conserve public lands for generations to come – both for my fellow veterans and all who want to visit these spectacular places.
I’ve lived in a lot of places – some far flung across the globe. But for me, there’s nothing like the stark yet subtle beauty of the California desert. The intricate and complex conditions make the contours of the landscape and the colors of the land and sky stand out. The solitude offers a place of calm for me, my fellow veterans, and many others who visit these areas.
The sudden scuttle of a lizard along the trail is a reminder that the desert is teeming with life, and the quiet sweep of a hawk overhead makes me feel free, and proud to live in such an incredible place.
Josh Bunce is a member of Vet Voice Foundation. He served in the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. He now resides in Riverside. Learn more about Vet Voice at www.vetvoicefoundation.org.