To U.S. Marine Corps veteran Ben Haberthur, a country worth protecting is a country worth preserving.
It’s that belief and a deep sense of patriotism that is a the root of the work of the Veterans Conservation Corps of Chicagoland, an organization Haberthur created in 2012 to make a positive difference in the lives of veterans and the landscapes in which they live by giving them hands-on restoration experience.
Haberthur – who is a veteran of the 2003 Iraq invasion –said nature can be a source of solace to veterans struggling with issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression when they return to civilian life.
“When I got out, I had my own trouble transitioning back to normal life,” he said, noting long hikes would give him a sense of regeneration.
Unemployment tends to compound veterans’ struggles, as they tend to feel like they have no sense of purpose, said Haberthur, now a restoration ecologist for the Kane County Forest Preserve District.
This winter, Haberthur has put a small group of veterans to work with the support of a $56,000 Audubon Toyota TogetherGreen Innovation Grant awarded to the Veterans Conservation Corps.
The veterans are learning about ecological restoration while restoring oak woodlands, prairies and wetlands at the Dick Young Forest Preserve near Batavia. Haberthur said the location is fitting because the forest preserve is named after a decorated World War II veteran.
Through the five-month transitional job-training program, veterans will gain real-world skills that should help them secure employment in ecological restoration. Last month, for example, participants earned their chainsaw certification and soon would earn their pesticide license, Haberthur said.
For Brian Stark, 28, the Veterans Conservation Corps aligned with his college degree. The Army veteran studied conservation biology and environmental geology at the University of Michigan, he said.
Stark described the restoration work as a good field for veterans because it is physically demanding and requires teamwork and camaraderie – elements familiar to veterans.
The veterans spend most of their eight-hour days in the field conducting such work as clearing the forest preserve of invasive brush, Haberthur said.
“It’s exhausting,” he said.
But it’s work Jacob Honaker, 24, welcomes. After leaving the Army early last year, Honaker said he worked at Walmart for three weeks and realized how much he hated being indoors and being surrounded by people.
Cutting down trees and seeing the finished product is enjoyable, he said.
“To be able to see a plan work out is phenomenal,” Honaker said. “To me, there’s really no better feeling.”
Those interested in helping Veterans Conservation Corps members with restoration work can attend public volunteer events, which are held monthly.
The next event is set for 9 a.m. to noon Feb. 22. The third and final brush clearing event is set for March 15, and a planting event is being planned for the spring, Haberthur said.