Oregon veteran on a mission to save outdoor spaces

 ·  Kyle Spurr, Associated Press

ASTORIA, Ore. (AP) - On days when his Army uniform was saturated in sweat from the nearly 120-degree temperature in Iraq, Matthew Zedwick would reminisce about the times he spent hiking, camping and fishing with his family back in Oregon.

He wanted nothing more than to hike Saddle Mountain, climb Smith Rock and fish for brook trout in a secluded lake in the Cascades with his uncles.

Thoughts of home helped Mr. Zedwick, a Corvallis native who now lives in Astoria, make it through difficult days serving with the Oregon Army National Guard 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry during a yearlong deployment in Iraq in 2004.

"When I was in the desert, I wanted to come home to Oregon. It's so incredibly beautiful here and it's home," Mr. Zedwick said. "It's what we swore to defend and swore to maintain, and it's something we need to leave our future generations."

Now back home in Astoria, Mr. Zedwick, 34, co-owns the Columbia Veterinary Hospital with his wife, Kristin Zedwick, and serves as an executive officer with the Oregon Army National Guard at Camp Withycombe in Clackamas.

He recently found a way to assist his fellow soldiers by joining the Vet Voice Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization focused on helping veterans speak out on national issues, including environmental concerns.

Through Vet Voice, Matthew Zedwick and five other veterans took a trip to Washington, D.C., in mid-April to meet with Oregon senators and discuss reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

The fund, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson 50 years ago, expires in September. Congress began considering renewing the fund on Earth Day, April 22.

It benefits parks and monuments across the country, including in Clatsop County. The Jewell Meadows Wildlife Area was formed as part of the fund. Other local beneficiaries are Les Shirley Park in Cannon Beach, city park restrooms and Broadway Park improvements in Seaside, ball fields in Astoria and restroom developments at the Hammond Mooring Basin.

The LWCF is funded by a portion of revenues from offshore oil and gas royalties.

"The senators thought it was incredible a veteran's organization was in support of the LWCF. That was really a surprise to them," Mr. Zedwick said. "They really enjoyed having the lands and parks as a part of healing and taking care of our troops."

Rick Hegdahl, the Pacific Northwest director for the Vet Voice Foundation, said his organization looks at environmental issues such as the LWCF from a veteran's point of view.

Protecting the outdoors for returning veterans is a new take on supporting the troops, he said.

"Veterans return from war and find a lot of healing from spending time outdoors," Mr. Hegdahl said.

One of the first things Mr. Zedwick did when he returned from his deployment in Iraq, was take an outdoor excursion with his cousin to Smith Rock, where they hiked and climbed together.

Being outdoors provided Mr. Zedwick an opportunity to re-establish and heal. Such experiences are critical for veterans, Mr. Zedwick said, especially for those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sometimes, he said, what soldiers need is to break away from society, and get outdoors where they can feel at peace with themselves and share their thoughts and experiences.

"It meant the world to me," Mr. Zedwick said.

Mr. Zedwick joined the Oregon Army National Guard in 1998 as a senior in high school in Corvallis. His time in the National Guard has taken him to Germany, Mongolia and around Oregon to help fight forest fires.

On June 13, 2004, in Iraq, Mr. Zedwick and other members of the infantry were patrolling a main supply route north of Baghdad when they approached a Land Rover SUV with a bomb planted in it. The SUV exploded and Mr. Zedwick threw himself over his squad leader, saving the man's life.

"I injured myself and continued to give first aid to my buddies, helped evacuate them and went back to pulling security and doing my job," he said.

His actions that day earned him the Silver Star, the third-highest military medal for valor. He became the first National Guardsman to receive the Silver Star since World War II.

At the time, Mr. Zedwick received recognition for the honor by being featured in the "America's Army" video game. His likeness was also depicted on an action figure as part of the campaign for the video game.

In 2008, Mr. Zedwick and his wife appeared on the TV show "Deal or No Deal," and won $227,000.

While meeting with Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Patty Murray, D-Wash., and other lawmakers in the District, Mr. Zedwick broke the ice by sharing another interesting fact about his life.

He told the senators about his 1-year-old pet bobcat, Elliot.

Mr. Zedwick and his wife, a veterinarian, adopted the 35-pound, female bobcat from outside of Missoula, Mont., and raised it from when it was 3 weeks old. Bobcats are legally bred in Montana and are allowed as pets in Oregon.

"We would stop talking about politics and talked about the bobcat," he said.

Mr. Zedwick went on the D.C. trip with veterans from California, New Mexico, Colorado and Washington.

All indications are the LWCF will be reinstated with bipartisan backing, but the veteran group still wanted to add their voice in support of the fund, and meet with lawmakers face-to-face.

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