Friday, July 28, 2017 This Week's Paper

Connecting Vets To Benefits: PAYING IT FORWARD

// Veteran volunteering in Swan Creek Park honors PCMARVETS with every cent in his wallet.

Credit veterans with some of the best mountain bike thrills in Tacoma, and much of Metro Parks Tacoma’s first mountain bike trail.

Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance is building a system of bike trails and challenges in the 50-acre Douglas Fir Forest at the heart of Swan Creek Park. They have been working on it for two years, expect to spend another year on it, then maintain the trails for the next three years.

It’s a phenomenal deal for taxpayers. Metro Parks has contracted with Evergreen to muster the volunteer work parties to build the trails, thrills and training features. The park district has paid about $60,000 for materials, tools and heavy equipment rental. The volunteers have done all the hacking, digging, clearing and building.

Phil Hansen has led them.

He is out of the Army now, but he served 10 years in the Airborne Infantry. His fiancée is serving in Afghanistan.

Two years into the building, he’s noticed a pattern: Veterans show up for almost every work party. Most of them have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Active duty soldiers show up as well, with the skills, will and strength to build.

“I’ve been a part of a lot of veterans’ groups that use this kind of project as a kind of eco-therapy,” Hansen said.

The movement is so strong, he said, that Washington has a veterans’ conservation corps. Hansen’s day job is in conservation. He does the trail work evenings and weekends. The mental and physical commitment to the environment helps keep him healthy, he said.

He’s seen that same combination, with a dose of camaraderie, help people with post traumatic stress disorder.

“You have a common interest that brings you together,” he said of the veterans who show up to volunteer. “They can talk and share stories. For a lot of vets, it’s part of socializing again.”

Serving the community after, or while serving the nation, has worked for him. Some vets don’t have that opportunity. Some, especially from older wars, have troubles a day of hard work and good company can’t address.

That’s why, when Hansen learned that PCMARVETS is running out of money to keep its mobile field office on the road, connecting veterans to the benefits they’ve earned, he pulled out his wallet.

When he learned that the non-profit has brought $4 million in benefits to Pierce County veterans, he opened that wallet and gave every cent in it to keep PCMARVETS rolling.

Two years of working on those bike trails have taught him that the best way to lead is by example.