The veterans gathered in front of the concrete pillars; the remnants of a U.S. Army field house at Camp Hale. Senator Michael Bennet, D-Colo., wants to designate the former training ground for the famed 10th Mountain Division, the alpine valley between Leadville and Red Cliff, as the first National Historic Landscape.
The designation would preserve Camp Hale from future development, while continuing to offer outdoor recreation and interpretation of the historic World War II training site.
“They had to climb in the middle of the night noiselessly,” said Susie Kincade, an advocate with Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, gesturing to one of the nearby cliff faces. “They used to all carry skis, but they lost the skis really quickly because they made so much noise. Not only were they silent, but they had to do quick hand-to-hand combat to take out the gunners at the top.”
Kincade referred to the famed assault on Riva Ridge, where 10th Mountain Division soldiers climbed the steep slope in the Italian Alps to seize a German surveillance point leading up to the battle at Mount Belvedere.
“A lot of them fell in love with the mountains,” she said. “After the war, they came back and created little ski areas.”
THE LONG CLIMB
On Saturday, July 30, a group of activists with the Washington D.C.-based Vet Voice Foundation, Wilderness Workshop and Conservation Colorado traced the footsteps of the 10th Mountain Division in a hike up to Kokomo Pass. The three groups are advocating for Bennet’s proposal.
“The wilderness saved my life, coming back from Iraq as a sniper,” Vet Voice Rocky Mountain director Garett Reppenhagen said. “Why not help save these areas that are saving us?”
A resident of South Park, Reppenhagen said he wants his two-year-old son to be able to explore the country’s forests, as he did during his childhood.
“I want that to be there for him and his children,” Reppenhagen said.
The son of a Vietnam War veteran, Reppenhagen moved often — everywhere from Texas to Germany. He recalled the frequent road trips to visit family across the U.S.
“We’d always camp on those trips. I got to see a lot of public lands growing up,” he said. “I just loved playing in the woods.”
During his high school years in Colorado, Reppenhagen started out working three minimum wage jobs before he joined the Army; it was just one month prior to 9/11.
“I got everything I wanted out of the military. I got to travel to some amazing places, meet some really great people and got my college paid for,” he said. “I got a lot else I didn’t want, or expect, as well.”
Trained as a sniper with the First Infantry Division, Reppenhagen was first deployed to Kosovo for a nine-month peacekeeping mission. He was then deployed to Iraq for a combat tour from 2004-05.
“You come back, demobilize, try to get your head sorted out and then you’re deployed again,” he said. “You get this feeling sometimes that your next day might be your last. You try to maximize your time as much as possible.”
Since returning to the U.S., Reppenhagen started Veterans Green Jobs, a nonprofit that trains veterans and helps them find careers in conservation. He has also worked as an advocate with Vet Voice for five years.
Matt Stys, an Iraq War veteran, did a 13-month tour with the U.S. Army. Originally trained as a generator mechanic, he was stationed as military police at an entry control point.
“My worst fear wasn’t bullets flying around me. It was exhaustion,” he said.
After being stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Stys went back to school when he found out he had more time in the GI Bill.
“The Waldo Canyon Fire propelled me back to school,” he said. “My whole interest in the outdoors — I had a thirst for more and more knowledge.”
Now, Stys has his sights on building sustainable communities and advocacy. An environmental studies major at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs has made three trips to Washington D.C. with Vet Voice. Last year, it was to advocate for the protection of the greater sage grouse.