‘Nature is an incredible healer’: National Parks honor military, veterans

Abbie Bennett
April 19, 2019 - 2:47 pm
Yosemite National Park - WWII - Military

Ralph H. Anderson/National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection.

During the world wars, some of the nation’s parks were shut down to divert resources to the war effort. Others were used as training and staging grounds.

But some of the parks kept operating in a small way -- they provided an escape for veterans returning from war and transitioning from service while struggling with “shell shock” or “battle fatigue,” now referred to as post-traumatic stress. The U.S. Naval Convalescent Hospital in Yosemite National Park was one of those.

The parks provided a refuge for those veterans, and have continued to be a place of sanctuary, reflection, recreation and peace to service members, veterans and their families, said Will Shafroth, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation. 

Shafroth comes from a line of veterans, many of them Navy, he said. On Sunday, April 21, the National Parks will celebrate Military and Veterans Recognition Day, part of National Park Week. Service members, veterans and their dependents will receive free admission to parks on Sunday. Find a national park near you.

“When you visit (the parks) you’re connected to something much bigger,” he said. “Being in nature can be restorative to human beings. Those facilities (in WWII) helped those returning from battle and really showed some positive results in terms of helping to give a transition period. Nature is an incredible healer in that way. It can restore your soul.”

Shafroth said visiting the parks today could still have those benefits for veterans and their families. 

“Those people and their families who have sacrificed so much -- sometimes the ultimate sacrifice -- for them to share in what it is to be a citizen of this country and experience joy from the parks they help protect … it’s remarkable. It’s why we do what we do,” he said.

WWIIYosemiteNationalPark
Courtesy of the National Park Service.

Military and Veterans Recognition Day is also an important opportunity for the park service and foundation to look back on the military significance and history of many of the parks Shafroth said.

“This is a chance for the park service to recognize the diversity of sites we have across the country that reflect on some aspect of our military history,” he said, including Revolutionary War historic site or Civil War sites such as Antietam and Gettysburg, or war memorials such as those on the National Mall, dedicated to those fallen in service to their country.

“This gives us an opportunity to reflect on those important moments in our history when the military secured our freedom and independence. We should shine a spotlight on that.”

The day of recognition is also important for those outside the military and veterans communities to understand the value and sacrifice of service.

“Those are the places people in the military have fought for and served our country to preserve,” he said. “The national parks are like a physical manifestation of our democracy. All people are created equally in our society and all people have equal access to our national parks. Those who have served helped secure not just people’s lifestyles and freedom, but these shared assets -- our shared history. The military helped make sure that was preserved for our future generations.”

The national parks also have programs for veterans to learn skills and help protect the parks, including programs for veterans to volunteer or be employed in service corps in the parks -- from Native American veterans helping maintain trails at Hubbel Trading Post National Historic Site, to veterans in the D.C. area working together as a Mission Continues Platoon to help clean up Anacostia Park and river, or wounded veterans helping preserve national history at Lake Mead, and many more.

When people experience national parks, they come away with a shared, powerful experience “that grounds us in what’s most important,” Shafroth said. And that leads many to contribute to the parks, civilian and veteran alike.

“That gratitude goes back to the people in military service who have served our country and kept these spaces free,” Shafroth said. “To be able to have those people and their families enjoy themselves is great -- it’s right.”

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WWIIYosemiteNationalParkSailors
Courtesy of the National Park Service.