Former Marine works to establish Veterans’ Conservation Corps

You could say that being called to active duty following the 9/11 terrorist attacks interrupted Ben Haberthur’s education at Cal State Monterey Bay. Or you might say that his active military service refocused it.

Ben HaberthurEither way, Haberthur’s work both as a restoration ecologist and a veterans’ advocate received a major boost recently when he was recognized with a TogetherGreen Fellowship Award from Toyota and the National Audubon Society.

Haberthur, who works for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County near Chicago, will use the $10,000 grant on an effort to encourage veterans dealing with the aftermath of their war experiences to work with nature.

Haberthur comes from a military family and, as a result, moved often during his childhood. “I think I always had a love of nature and the outdoors, from spending a lot of time outside growing up and moving around to a lot of beautiful places,” he said.

He came to the Monterey Peninsula when his stepfather was studying at the Naval Postgraduate School. He took classes at Monterey Peninsula College before enrolling at CSUMB in Earth Systems Science and Policy, now known as Environmental Science, Technology and Policy.

A Marine Corps reservist, Haberthur was called to active duty in February 2002 and eventually served a tour of nearly six months in Iraq during the early stages of the war.
He said he was struck by the widespread environmental destruction promoted by the Saddam Hussein regime during the fighting.

“They ditched and drained thousands of acres of Iraq’s marshlands,” he told the Aurora Beacon News. Seeing those environmental costs up close, he said, made him more focused on his career goals.

“I hadn’t really been that strong of a student before, but I came back to school with a renewed sense of purpose,” Haberthur said.

Another important factor in his successful return to CSUMB were the relationships he had formed with several faculty members. “In making the transition back, it was good to have some familiar faces there to help,” he said, including Professors Swarup Wood and Suzy Worcester and Watershed Institute co-director Laura Lee Lienk.

“I know of no more deserving former student than Ben Haberthur for this fine honor,” Lienk said. “About a year after his return from Iraq, my program, Return of the Natives Restoration Education Project, hired Ben to be a ‘Weed Warrior,’ one of a few elite students involved in community-based habitat restoration, in his case through the removal of invasive weed species.

“Ben brought to every volunteer event a sense of fun and camaraderie. I like to think that his good work in the Chicago area may in some way have been affected by his experiences with us coordinating ‘Ice plant Pulling Olympics’ and ‘Weed Geocaching’ events in urban communities.”

Haberthur said the internships he found through the Watershed Institute and through the efforts of Bill Head of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Center made it easier for him to find a job following his graduation in 2005. He looked in the Chicago region because his wife and fellow CSUMB graduate, Jennifer Diaz Haberthur, was from that area.

Haberthur has worked as a restoration technician, geographic information systems (GIS) specialist, and a restoration ecologist.

He said that his work with nature helped him recover from the stresses of his military service; he is now hoping to open up a similar experience to other veterans. Having received the grant, he is working on outreach with veterans’ and military organizations in his area to find participants in his proposed Veterans’ Conservation Corps.

“I think those veterans are a great untapped resource,” he said. “But it also is an activity that can really benefit the veterans, having that kind of contact with nature.”

The plan is to have the group work on restoration of a 1,131-acre forest preserve in Batavia, Ill., named in honor of World War II veteran Dick Young.

“I was inspired by the story of local hero Dick Young,” Haberthur told the TogetherGreen organization. “He was a World War II Marine veteran turned conservationist who was able to overcome all he saw on Iwo Jima to become a leader in the fight to save our region’s natural areas.

"He embodied the belief that a country worth protecting is worth preserving.”