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'Nature became the biggest healing power I had'

He was just an 18-year-old farm kid—and avid outdoorsman—from Rochester when he signed up for the Marines in 1969. Eighteen months later, Francis “Fitz” Fitzgerald was lying on a battlefield in Vietnam. His arm and leg were torn apart. His eye was gone. Over the last 50 years, Fitz has turned to nature—conserving it, fighting for it, helping others appreciate it—for his own healing.

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Francis J. Fitzgerald.
Jim Brandenburg / Special to Rochester Magazine

Francis J. Fitzgerald crouched on the creek bank. He scanned the meadow across the small stream at the edge of his campsite in Rocky Mountain National Park, waiting for something to happen.

For a week, a light mist filled the little valley, which had just started to feel early autumn’s chill.

Fitzgerald—everyone who knows him calls him “Fitz”—had spent the last few days fishing for trout in the little stream, taking hikes around the park, and watching for something—anything—to emerge from the woods opposite the creek. Now, as dusk settled in, a breeze carried the warm scent of Western pines across the campground. Perhaps this would be the moment when something extraordinary appeared.

It was September of 1969, and nearing the end of a decade marked by cultural landmarks and civil unrest. Just five years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson had signed both the Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act into law. Earlier that year, Americans landed the first two people, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, on the moon.

In June, the Stonewall uprising brought the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights to the greater consciousness of the American public. And, nearly 8,000 miles away, a war was raging in Vietnam.

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Just weeks earlier, Fitz had walked into the recruitment office in Rochester, and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was 18 years old. Within a month, he’d be flying out to boot camp in California.

Suddenly, in the field across the stream, a large bull elk stepped out of the forest. The rich, velvety sheen of the animal’s hide covered a body that weighed up to 700 pounds and spanned up to eight feet, nose to tail. Great antlers, rising several feet high and sharpened to fine, white points, arranged themselves like a crown.

“It was a lasting impression,” Fitz says. “Still today, I can see it like it was last week.”

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Fitz and I are chatting over Zoom on a warm day in early June. Fitz sits at his desk under an A-frame roof, in front of a window framed by large wood panels. He’s wearing a T-shirt with the image of the Wyoming flag, which depicts a great white bison and the state seal bearing the motto “Equal Rights” at the center.

The moment that bull elk appeared became a touchstone in Fitz’s life. It’s also an episode he revisits regularly in his memoir, Combat to Conservation: A Marine’s Journey through Darkness into Nature’s Light, published earlier this year by Köehler Books.

“I never intended to publish this book,” Fitz says. But as he wrote, he realized that, perhaps by sharing his story with veterans, first responders, and others who have been affected by trauma, he could help them on their own paths to healing.

St. Marys, St. Pius; Boy Scouts and Boy’s Choir

Francis James Fitzgerald was born at St. Marys Hospital in Rochester on January 13, 1951. As Fitz’s mom, Margaret, recovered in the hospital, a blizzard brewed outside. By the time they were ready to go back to the family’s farmstead south of town, deep drifts had piled on the country roads.

Someone, perhaps an uncle, Fitz says, drove him and his mom to where the road disappeared under the snow. Fitz’s father, Francis, was waiting with a horse-drawn sleigh to ferry them home. That winter proved a startling introduction to the cold: In two week’s time, the temperature dropped to 40 degrees below zero, still one of the lowest temperatures ever recorded in Rochester.

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Fitz’s parents operated a 160-acre dairy farm that they had taken over from Margaret’s side of the family. In 1956, when Fitz was five years old, the Interstate 90 project through southeast Minnesota was approved, and the planned route cut right through the farm. His parents decided to move the family to northwest Rochester.

The second-youngest of seven children, Fitz attended school at St. Pius and joined Boy Scouts and the Rochester Boy’s Choir. During the holidays, the choir performed Christmas carols in the mezzanine of Dayton’s. Back then, the department store filled eight stories of a brick building downtown at the intersection of Broadway and Second Street (now the Rosa Parks Pavilion).

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When Fitz was maybe 10 years old, his parents moved back out to the country, just five miles northwest of town. Fitz earned a little money by catching pocket gophers—you could collect a bounty from the township by turning in the critter’s two front paws (“15 cents a gopher,” Fitz recalls).

“Every so often, a pair of gopher paws would accidentally go through the washing machine if Mom didn’t check my jean pockets,” Fitz writes.

Fitz bought a small pup tent—a simple canvas sheet that suspends between two poles—from the Sears downtown. On summer evenings, he and his dog, Duchess, a German shepherd-collie mix, would hike out past the edge of the farm and set up camp in the woods. To the young Fitz, it seemed as though he had walked off the map and into a new world.

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“You couldn’t see the house,” Fitz says. “Back then, it seemed like it was out in the middle of nowhere.”

Fitz graduated from Lourdes high school in 1969. He dreamed of becoming a game warden, but he didn’t think he was ready to go to college. “I knew I wouldn’t take it seriously,” he says, “and I didn’t want to flunk out.”

That summer, he took a job at a dairy plant cleaning tankards and filling large, hefty bags with powdered milk. It was demanding, physical work. The bin room smelled of sour, scorched cream. At the end of a long shift, Fitz would be covered in fine, white dust. “You’d sweat, and all the powder [would] stick to your face,” he says.

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Fitz was already thinking about enlisting in the military when he saw a recruitment poster near the post office downtown. He figured that a military background plus a college degree would make him an attractive candidate for game warden jobs in the future.

And so he signed up for the Marines.

Before reporting for boot camp, Fitz went West to see the mountains. He headed out on I-90, the same road that had driven his parents from the “old farm” into town over a decade before.

After a week at Timber Creek Campground in Rocky Mountain National Park—after spotting that bull elk—Fitz drove back to Rochester before boarding a plane in Minneapolis. Then on to San Diego, and from there, basic training.

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Over 12 weeks of boot camp, Fitz added 22 pounds of muscle to his already athletic frame (he had run track and cross country in high school). From there, he moved on to advanced infantry training and, later, recon school. That spring, he returned home to Minnesota for a short leave before reporting for duty in May of 1970.

He was heading to Vietnam.

“You could tell it was a gorgeous country”

By the time Fitz arrived in the country, American soldiers had been involved on the ground in combat between North and South Vietnam for five years. Advancements in broadcast technology made the Vietnam War the first ever global conflict broadcast on television. Nightly updates on the conflict streamed into American homes.

Images from the frontlines displayed the war’s immense human and environmental cost. Napalm bombs, developed in a Harvard lab during WWII, represented a “whole new level of destruction,” according to the Smithsonian documentary, The Pacific War in Color. “Now an airplane can become a dragon: with one breath, it can set a bridge ablaze, set water on fire, or turn a field of green earth into a lifeless, charred dead zone where no one can hide.”

American planes also spread Agent Orange, a powerful herbicide, to defoliate forests where enemy combatants might be hiding. Exposure to the chemical has been linked to birth defects and cancers, among other illnesses.

Yet, as Fitz flew in a jet on the way to Da Nang, he was struck by glimpses of beauty across the war-torn country.

“If you looked in the right direction, away from the bombed-out or burnt areas, you could tell it was a gorgeous country,” he says.

Lush mountains rose up from turquoise waters. Streams meandered across fields and disappeared up dark green valleys.

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From Da Nang, Fitz was helicoptered to a remote compound, which he describes as essentially a base on a hilltop. But he says he felt safer on patrol “out in the bush” than at the bunker, which was an obvious target. “I always felt more at home in nature than in civilization,” Fitz says.

From time to time, he thought back to that striking moment when the bull elk stepped out of the woods in Rocky Mountain National Park. Now, the sights around him sometimes stunned him with their beauty.

“They were good distractions,” Fitz says, “but distractions nonetheless. Out in the bush, you didn’t want to go down memory lane for too long.”

On December 19, 1970, Fitz was out on patrol with a small team of four to set up for a potential ambush.

“It wasn’t any different than any other night on patrol,” Fitz says. “It was something I’d done many times.”

As he was crossing a bridge near a small village, an explosion knocked him to the ground. Gunfire erupted around him.

Fitz couldn’t feel his right arm, and he noticed his legs were bleeding heavily.

His team members were down around him. Fitz managed to radio for a medevac.

He doesn’t know how long they waited. Maybe 30 minutes. Maybe two hours. He was just trying to stay alive.

Then that helicopter arrived. Then they got carried out of there.

“The biggest healing power I had”

On December 22, Fitz’s parents received a telegram in Rochester.

It described their son’s injuries as “multiple fragmentation and gunshot wounds.”

During the initial months of his recovery, Fitz could no longer see out of his left eye. He had suffered a detached retina, and doctors replaced the eye with a prosthetic.

For the next six months, Fitz received treatment at various military hospitals before he was honorably discharged in June of 1971.

That autumn, Fitz started college. Within two years, he transferred to the College of Natural Resources at Stevens Point, Wisconsin, to pursue his dream of becoming a game warden.

By then, he had gotten married and welcomed his first child, Paul. The family lived in a trailer near the woods, where Fitz often went out for walks. And yet, he often woke up angry, he says. He wasn’t sure why.

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Heather and Fitz.

As Fitz neared the end of his degree, he enrolled in an off-campus summer program in northern Wisconsin, where he studied plants and wildlife in the field. For the final exam, the students were tasked with identifying a number of plants along a stretch of trail some 400 yards long that wound through the woods. Every few steps, a brightly colored tag would appear on a plant, and the students were supposed to record the name of the species.

As Fitz walked along, he says, the path narrowed and the vegetation grew dense. Suddenly he was back in Vietnam, scouting for potential signs of an enemy lying in wait.

“It was like I was walking point on a jungle trail,” he says.

When Fitz neared the end of the path, he remembered where he was and reviewed his clipboard. He had left much of the page blank.

Over time, Fitz realized that he was suffering from mental as well as physical wounds from the war. “I was angry because, for a long time … I didn’t have the comfort in the woods that I once had,” he says. “It’s like all of a sudden you don’t trust the woods—you’re going to get ambushed, or you’re going to step on a booby trap.” He felt, he says, as though “a lifelong friend had turned his back on me.”

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Fitz and Max in Colorado.

As he neared graduation, Fitz learned that his prosthetic eye would disqualify him from becoming a game warden. “It is simply impossible to explain the heartbreak, the disappointment… the feeling of failure and emptiness that overtook my entire life,” he later wrote. “I was done, and had no plans and nowhere to go.”

With his hopes of becoming a game warden dashed, Fitz instead took up work with his in-laws, who owned a large mechanical contracting firm in Rochester. He and his wife purchased some land in northern Wisconsin and built a cabin. On occasion, when he was out on a walk in the woods, the feeling that he was back in Vietnam returned.

“It doesn’t take much to bring a memory back,” he says. “But then the more I did it, the further away it got.”

By 1980, Fitz and his wife welcomed their fourth child. Fitz enjoyed taking the kids out fishing on the lake. Over time, his wounds started to heal. But he says it took about 10 years to get back to where he felt “totally comfortable in the wild” again. Ultimately, he says, “nature became the biggest healing power I had.”

By the winter of 1990, Fitz was ready for a career change. He and his wife had divorced, and Fitz began looking at lodges for sale up north. In February 1991, he purchased a small resort just four miles southwest of Ely on Mitchell Lake. That December, he married Heather McKinnon, who grew up in Rochester and worked at Rochester Public Schools. They held their ceremony at the Mayo Estate.

Fitz and Heather both relocated to the resort, which lay within the bounds of the Superior National Forest. Fitz reveled in introducing lodge guests to nature, he says, whether by going out on a canoe trip or fishing on the dock.

In partnership with the Forest Service, the lodge offered programs led by naturalists, who gave talks on the nearby flora and fauna, held bird watching workshops, and led guests on nature hikes. It was inspiring to watch clients be “awakened to something they were never really aware of,” Fitz says. “Simple little things, that might be their bull elk.”

Over time, Fitz became more directly involved in helping turn people’s appreciation of nature into conservation. In 2000, he accepted a job with the Nature Conservancy in the San Luis Valley of Colorado, where he organized an environmental educational facility. Eventually his job grew into Project Director for the Colorado Nature Conservancy.

“The years my wife and I spent in the San Luis Valley continued to heal my spirit and soul while working to protect the very things that I knew were my secret to healing back to a healthy life,” Fitz writes.

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Francis J. Fitzgerald.
Jim Brandenburg / Special to Rochester Magazine

In 2003, Fitz and Heather moved back to Minnesota, where he began working with the Minnesota Land Trust, a non-profit organization aimed at restoring and conserving natural habitats across Minnesota. The trust primarily preserves habitat by working with private property owners to develop conservation easements, in which a landowner permanently gives up the development rights on some of their land in exchange for tax credit.

In northern Minnesota, where Fitz worked as the Program Director of Conservation, he helped establish easements on valuable habitat, such as shorelines and seasonal ranges, until he retired in 2014.

Fitz still volunteers for the organization by monitoring protected properties. From 2018-21, he also served on the Board of Directors for the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota.

“Therapy for myself”

A few months into the pandemic, in the early autumn of 2020, Fitz started to write down his story. He filled the pages of two yellow legal pads before deciding to start typing. He had the stories in his head for years, he says.

Initially, he only intended to write them out “as therapy for myself,” he says. Over time, he began to wonder if sharing his story might help others who had gone through trauma and could benefit from healing through nature. “It sort of became an impetus to finish,” he says.

Fitz sent out inquiries to publishers at the end of the year and continued to work on the manuscript. By the summer of 2021, he had signed an agreement with Köehler Books. Combat to Conservation was released on March 31 of 2022.

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In his blurb for the book, Minnesota Land Trust Executive Director Kris Larson commented that the book “is an amazing story of the personal healing power of nature, but … also an important call to action. Fitz reminds us that ‘we can be that which holds the planet together and protects it’ … but only if we are willing to fight for it.”

This June, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources held their yearly roundtable. The theme for the year was the “Future of Conservation,” and they invited Fitz to deliver the keynote address.

As we chat over Zoom—me from my kitchen table in Rochester, and he from up north near Ely—I ask him what the future of conservation looks like in Minnesota.

“It depends on the youth,” he says. “If we can get government and politicians to agree on issues and prioritize issues ahead of partisan battles, I think [conservation in Minnesota] has a bright future,” he says.

“We’ve got to get young people involved. We’ve got to get young people outside, to have a chance to experience it,” he says. “The glory and romance of the field [of natural resources] is in wildlife biology,” he says.

But he believes the educational component is perhaps even more important.

As for Fitz’s own personal journey, he says, the next step is returning to Vietnam. He looks forward to kayaking along the coastline and e
xploring the caves the country is famous for. He hopes that seeing the region now, and “how pretty, how natural it is, would probably eliminate some old memories.”

For, as Fitz knows, there’s nothing like nature’s balm to heal old wounds.

To order Combat to Conservation: A Marine’s Journey Through Darkness Into Nature’s Light, go to www.fjfitzgerald.com .

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