This is our Freedom

Photo by: Juliette Lynch
Photo by: AJ Chavar
Photo by: AJ Chavar
Photo by: Juliette Lynch
Photo by: Juliette Lynch
Photo by: AJ Chavar
Photo by: Juliette Lynch
Photo by: Juliette Lynch
Photo by: Juliette Lynch
Photo by: Juliette Lynch
Photo by: Juliette Lynch
Photo by: AJ Chavar
"To really know us, to know what happened to us, you have to be here. You have to see it with your own eyes."

The most common question asked of the Syracuse News21 team during our six-week stay in rural Washington state was a simple one, but it proved difficult to answer:

Why are you here?

To answer in brief, we went to Ferry and Okanogan counties because so many veterans are there. The reasons why they are there are sometimes obvious, sometimes touching and sometimes discouraging to hear, and they helped guide us in telling these stories.

Veterans come here to remove themselves from society.

The mountains keep things hidden, for better or worse.

The earth here was pushed up groaning 100 million years ago, when the Okanogan micro-continent mashed into the western edge of North America. The valleys among the mountains were scrubbed out and defined by Pleistocene glaciers, and a thick deciduous forest grew to cover it all.

The dense ponderosa pine and long-rising mountains reveal little to travelers on the sparse roads that wind among them. Hundreds of homes fly by, out of sight; hundreds of stories go unheard.

Here, street lights do not outshine the stars, and car horns do not sing over the birds. Years pass, but the mountains and the trees remain, and the people they shelter remain among them.

Veterans come here for community with people who understand them.

In Ferry County, more than 15 percent of the 7,520 residents are veterans; the state average is 10 percent. Those who are not veterans are parents, children, aunts, uncles, friends, spouses, co-workers and acquaintances.

There are veterans from every major conflict since the World War II. In American Legion halls and mountain cabins, on Main Street and on the reservation, they share war stories and show off scars and tattoos.

The woods are no paradise. Female veterans say they are misunderstood here at home just as they were while in the service.

Not everyone understands — it is hard to understand. All the stories are different, but the sense of having a story to tell is the same.

Veterans come here — and stay here — out of fear.

This is cougar country.

The only fatal cougar attack on record in Washington took place Dec. 17, 1924, in southern Okanogan County, when 13-year-old Jimmie Fehlhaber was mauled while snowshoeing to pick up a pair of horses at a neighbor’s house.

In town, they talk about the mountains in whispers and shudders: “I wouldn’t go up there without a gun.” Sometimes they’re talking about cougars. Other times they’re talking about ‘trip-wire’ veterans who retreated from society, but not from their demons.

Hand-made ‘no trespassing’ signs dot the mountainside. Behind them are lonely people and worried people, fearful people and violent people. Occasionally shots ring out, echoing against the hills and around the community.

A shroud of fear sometimes cloaks these veterans. It is palpable, and it is not always clear where it comes from.

Veterans come here out of poverty.

In a waving bluegrass field, a dusty red station wagon looks down the Okanogan Valley as if parked at an abandoned drive-in movie theater. Knitbone and wild geraniums poke into the engine, but the windows are rolled up tight.

A gold boom came to Ferry and Okanogan counties at the end of the 19th century. By 1910, it was gone. Long desolate stretches of county road weave in and out of the derelict homesteads clustered around mining ghost towns.

Prosperity has been here, and it has left.

Now, the median household income in these two rural counties is $38,000, far less than the state average of $58,000, but the cost of living here is 15 percent less than than the national average. Veterans who can’t afford to live on the coast or in a city come here for cheap land and privacy.

The gold mine on Buckhorn Mountain is running again, but jobs are still hard to find, and young men and women graduating from high school look to the military for a way out. Some will return, others will not.

Veterans come here for peace of mind.

There are three people per square mile in Ferry County.

Red-tail hawks circle languorously, barely visible in the high, hazy summer sky, and their shrieking bounces around the valley. Marmots skitter and dodge. The wind and rain are players, not extras, in the daily drama of the men and women who live here.

Those who shy from crowds find space.

Those who feel rushed find time.

Those who startle find quiet.

The woods of northeastern Washington are inhabited by thousands of men and women who served their country and came home to deal with the consequences.

Look for them, and you will see. Listen to their stories, and you will hear.

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