Since his family moved to Montana in 2000, Tristan Persico has developed a fondness for wild places. He grew up in a remodeled cabin in the Garnet Range before moving to Missoula for high school, and took up hunting big game like elk and antelope. While stationed in Afghanistan as an explosive ordinance disposal technician with the U.S. Air Force, he says he’d look around at the treeless brown mountains and think, “Man, I wouldn’t mind being in Montana.”
But Persico’s favorite moment late last month, while leading a Montana Wilderness Association-sponsored backcountry outing on the Rocky Mountain Front, wasn’t necessarily the untrammeled vistas. It was sitting around a campfire with seven fellow veterans, swapping stories in the kind of environment he believes is typically more comfortable for members of the armed services.
“It was almost like all of the positive aspects of being in the military, with that quality of person that you’re serving with, but with none of the negative aspects,” Persico says.
Persico, who left the Air Force in 2011 and is currently a student at the University of Montana, is set to lead four similar outdoor excursions throughout the summer in areas like the Swan Range and the Great Burn. The outings—free and offered exclusively for veterans and their families—represent a sort of pilot program for the MWA, one aimed at introducing vets throughout the state to wilderness and giving them the skills to pursue future backcountry trips. MWA NEXGen Program Director Zack Porter says Persico’s participation has been a perfect fit at a time when the nonprofit is trying to revitalize its connection with the veteran community.
“Veterans have had a really long and storied connection with wilderness,” Porter says. “Veterans coming back from World War II and Korea, they were the legislators and the advocates who pushed to get the Wilderness Act passed.”
Both Porter and Persico say there’s a good chance similar trips could be scheduled in future summers.
Persico feels the exposure the trips offer have an added therapeutic benefit for those still struggling with the transition from military to civilian life. While that’s not really his or MWA’s main focus, he does feel the mix of veterans and wilderness is “a no-brainer, especially in Montana.”
“Wilderness areas are naturally therapeutic,” Persico says. “So if a veteran chooses to take advantage of that therapeutic aspect and we’ve given them the knowledge and experience to be able to do that, then that’s great.”