THE BLOG
01/20/2012 01:39 pm ET Updated Mar 21, 2012

Returning Soldiers, Jobs and the Great American Landscape

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue winding down, there has been much discussion about the world -- and the precarious economy -- that our soldiers are returning home to inhabit. Where will these men and women find work in a sour job market? Given their exquisite (and expensive) training, where should their talents most effectively be used?

As uncertain as the economic picture might be, there are countless models of exemplary post-war work that has been done by soldiers returning from the wars of previous generations. Some of this "civilian" work has left an imprint on our country at least as beneficial as the missions carried out on the battlefield. Take, for example, the post-World War Two legacy of the 10th Mountain Division.

In the winter of 1945, desperate to end years of bloodletting by German troops retreating slowly up the Italian boot, the United States inserted its fabled "mountain troops" into the Apennine mountains. Though the United States had never had mountain soldiers before, and though this division had never previously seen battle, this group of men was already as famous as any unit in the American army. Stacked with world-famous skiers and mountaineers, the division had become a darling of magazine photographers and Hollywood producers alike. There they were, in all-white snowsuits, skiing in formation down the slopes of Colorado! There they were, rappelling down cliff faces, with rifles strapped to their backs! There they were, shouldering 90-pound backpacks above the Rocky Mountain winter treeline!

Once in Italy, the division earned lasting renown for scaling a cliff known as Riva Ridge -- at night, and in the middle of winter -- and knocking out what had long been an impregnable German defensive position. From there, the division chased the German army to the very edge of the Alps, and remained in hot pursuit when the war in Europe finally came to an end in the spring of 1945.

Yet the division's celebrity did not shield the men from terrible losses. Over the next four months -- and in the course of defeating a full five German divisions, totaling some 100,000 troops -- the 10th lost nearly a thousand of its own, and suffered another 3,900 wounded. Among the hundreds of soldier/athlete casualties was Torger Tokle, a recruit from Norway who, when he was killed, was the world's greatest ski jumper. Despite the loss of so many unusually gifted soldiers, the division's wartime legacy was secure.

Yet the 10th Mountain Division's achievements did not end with the completion of the war. Once home, veterans set out to put a stamp on the American landscape -- and the American imagination -- that has been as indelible as any group of soldiers in American history.

Returning to the mountains of Colorado and Wyoming and Washington and New England, where so many of them had learned to ski and climb as boys, members of the division developed or ran some 60 ski resorts, including Aspen, Vail, Sugarbush and Whiteface. Paul Petzoldt, who had helped train the division's climbers, founded the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), which remains one of the country's leading mountaineering centers. Bill Bowerman became coach of the legendary University of Oregon track team. David Brower returned to become head of the Sierra Club, and one of the most effective conservationists of the 20th century.

Other men attached to the division came home to coach the U.S. Ski Team; helped develop the Peace Corps; developed a famous hut-to-hut hiking and skiing system in the Rockies; and founded and developed the National Ski Patrol. Still others became world-renowned wildlife photographers, sailors, and Himalayan mountaineers. Dozens more became leading mountain rescue experts and rangers throughout the National Park system. These were not all high profile, or high-paying jobs; indeed, the majority were quite the opposite. This was work that these veterans had grown to love, not least because it mirrored the training they had done before the war. The work also offered some of the same camaraderie and love of the American wilderness that had drawn them to the 10th Mountain Division in the first place.

By the time I got to know the ski troops, many of them (by then in their 80s) were still skiing and hiking and cycling in the country's great mountain ranges. They were, in the very best sense, "old men of the mountains," who had spent not just the war years but their whole lives living in, teaching about and tending to the country's great wilderness areas.

The 10th Mountain Division's post-war reputation remains a thing of well-deserved legend. There are larger-than-life statues of the ski troops from Vermont to Vail, celebrating a group of men who had the vision and the energy to turn the skills and friendship they developed in the army to make a lasting and honorable contribution to post-war America. It is safe to say that entire swaths of American culture -- from the skiing industry to mountaineering to environmental stewardship -- bear the indelible stamp of the 10th Mountain Division. They offer a distinguished model for the thousands of soldiers coming home and wondering how they might next serve their country.