Flyover country. The world beyond the bubble. A red corner of a purple state. Those are the kind of labels that offer simple answers.
Stereotypes reveal so little. They certainly don't tell us much about the people of a small Colorado town whom I’ve had the privilege to get to know over the past few years.
I first visited Montrose in 2012. I was on a Stars & Stripes assignment to write about this western Colorado community's grassroots effort to help war vets reintegrate into civilian life.
Once the article was published in 2014, I still had plenty of material in my notebook. I had even more curiosity about this big-hearted town and its people. I decided to write “Home of the Brave.” Working on that book entailed many visits to Montrose and many conversations over the next two years.
In "Home of the Brave" I recount how Melanie Kline, a Montrose, Colorado jeweler who has no military experience or ties, started the project now called the Welcome Home Alliance for Veterans. She was inspired after watching a 2011 CBS Sunday Morning segment on wounded vets learning to kayak. She became determined to do something to help a population facing high rates of suicide, divorce, homelessness and unemployment.
In just a few years, Welcome Home attracted the support of others in Kline's town of 20,000. Welcome Home hosts a biannual outdoors festival that brings vets from across the country to hunt, fish and kayak. It helped the town and surrounding county develop a white water river park they hope will boost local tourism. It organized internships that offered young wounded vets a chance to consider what they would do with the rest of their lives. At its volunteer-run drop-in center, vets can get a cup of coffee along with counseling and advice on jobs and training.
Kline built a partnership between civilians and veterans that has energized an entire town and could be a model for others.
Montrose voters went for Trump, though not as decisively as they had for Romney four years before. The town with agricultural roots is far from either coast, though closer west than east. It’s struggled economically and most of its people are white.
As a reporter on four continents for three decades, I leave preconceptions behind when I head out on assignment. I listen and try to understand once I arrive at my destination. It's a method that, to borrow a phrase from novelist Paul Auster, never fails to clarify and sometimes even illuminates.
Yes, I did meet angry, older white men in Montrose. One, a Vietnam vet, scared his family so much that a daughter took him to the VA hospital on a pretense, saying it was time for his flu shot. While her father was in with a nurse, the young woman told a receptionist of her concerns. Her father was referred to a counselor who prescribed anti-anxiety medication that did help. Even more helpful, the vet told me, was joining a Welcome Home therapy group with vets from several generations. He tries to set a good example for the younger old soldiers. In helping them, he challenges himself to reflect and hold his temper.
This vet and so many other people in Montrose have taken on a multifaceted challenge. They have not been deterred by the enormity of the problems they face, nor by the scarcity of resources at their disposal.
Montrose gave me glimpses of what collaboration can accomplish even in times of bruising rancor and division. I went there with questions and returned with evidence of the human capacity for generosity, resilience and healing.