Skip to main content

Mountain Heroes: Jonathan Gensler

My name is Jonathan .

As an Iraq vet, I know what sacrifice means
and mountaintop removal is senseless sacrifice

I find it very difficult to separate the stranglehold that coal has on our state (and indeed our nation) from the choking power of the oil industry. Both industries have provided cheap sources of energy helping fuel our economic rise, and both have exacted terrible costs on a small population.

Jonathan Gensler: My Mountain Story

Jonathan Gensler is a native of southern West Virginia and a former officer in the United States Army. A veteran of the Iraq War, Jon dedicates his career to the development of a clean energy economy. In his current position, he is working on transforming the energy profile of the one of the largest energy consumers in the world, the Department of Defense – taking them from over-reliance on dirty fossil fuels to leading the way with advanced and large-scale solar energy projects that harness the abundant power of the sun. Jon has also worked in strategic management of a company specializing in energy-efficient lighting technologies and worked to bring new clean energy technologies to the marketplace with the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). A passionate warrior for the economic and security benefits of renewable energy, his work on national security and clean energy issues has taken him from Capitol Hill to Copenhagen, where he has represented the hundreds of veterans of Operation Free, a nationwide coalition of veterans pushing for urgent action on climate change. He currently leads the Truman National Security Project’s national Energy Experts group and serves on the board of the Better Future Project, a nonprofit working on ending the burning of fossil fuels for social, health, and national security reasons. Jon is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and is a recipient of the Bronze Star Medal, one of our nation’s highest military awards.

This is Jonathan's story:

My name is Jon Gensler, and I did not grow up in coal country, nor in the family of coal miners. I grew up in Huntington, WV, a town whose history was built on the export of coal via rail and barge. Cabell County, one of the few in which there are no notable or economically recoverable coal reserves, may be one of the few pieces of WV not scarred and mutilated to some extent by what was once the largest employer of our state.

I’ll readily admit it, I left the state as soon as I could, seeking education and opportunity elsewhere. But not before I learned a deep love and appreciation for my mountain home. Yet 16 years ago in 1996, I graduated from high school and went to the United States Military Academy at West Point, nominated by our beloved Senator Bob Byrd to study leadership, and earn a commission as an officer in the US Army.

I thought that was the most difficult thing I could do as a young man, and I thought myself ready for the challenges that cadet life would bring, the thrill of being a soldier, and the prestige that being a member of the storied Long Gray Line would bestow upon me, perhaps as a career officer looking at the next 20 or 30 years of my life.

After five years of service and two deployments, I attended the funeral of one of my West Point classmates and one of the few West Virginians at West Point, Captain Ben Tiffner. I watched in silence and respect as Ben was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on a cold December day in 2007. He was killed by an advanced roadside bomb in Iraq – a bomb designed and paid for by an Iranian regime flush with oil money. He now has a bridge named after him in our home state, on the road leading down to the “Gateway to West Virginia’s Southern Coalfields.”

Three months after Ben’s funeral, I found myself at yet another funeral, for another soldier and friend, this time being interred in the hallowed grounds of West Point itself. Captain Torre Mallard was killed by an eerily similar bomb, again designed and paid for with oil money. I firmly believe that things in life happen for a reason. God watches over us, and gives us opportunities to see, to learn, and to take a stand. It was about the time of these funerals that I was first exposed to the horror of mountaintop removal coal mining. Flying back home for a holiday and a family visit, I first saw what was becoming of the hills and valleys I loved to explore as a child.

My flight from Charlotte that day came in low over Boone and Kanawha Counties, where I have family. I recall the lush green of the hills, and then, WHAM, like a punch in the stomach, the moonscape of a massive mountaintop removal mining site. The devastation took me back instantly to the war-torn desert wastelands of Iraq, to images and pictures my brothers and sisters-in-arms had shown me of the battlefields of Afghanistan It seemed to go on forever. We were flying fast, but the mine never seemed to end. Whole cities could fit in its footprint. Big cities. Glancing up, I could look out in any direction, and more of these same abominations covered what were once verdant and life-giving hills. Hills from which my ancestral Cherokee made a living a thousand years ago. Mountains which have given so much to this country, since long before coal was discovered and exploited, along with the people nearby.

A small amount of research into what was going on, and it became apparent that this is the future if we don’t stop it – dried-up mountain towns, cancer taking the young and old alike, a mono-economy that robs the lifeblood and spirit from the people it should support, and in the end, no jobs, no mountains, no more Mountain State.

I find it very difficult to separate the stranglehold that coal has on our state (and indeed our nation) from the choking power of the oil industry. Both industries have provided cheap sources of energy helping fuel our economic rise, and both have exacted terrible costs on a small population. The small towns of Appalachia are being sacrificed like sacred cows to fund the easy profits of out-of-state coal companies. There is no wealth generated for those who lose everything, no chance at compensation for our grandchildren. There are no prayers that can be said that will assuage those who came before us and those whose memories we have betrayed.

But there is another path we can take. We are a hardy people in West Virginia, and truly across all of Appalachia. We have not always refused to face hard decisions. In fact, our state’s birth nearly 150 years ago amid the ruin of the Civil War was only one such instance —when 55 counties of Virginia voted to leave the Confederacy, at a time when it appeared the Union might well lose the War, weeks before the victory at Gettysburg.

We can make a similar choice today, if we want: To take the history and heritage we have as an energy state and make the transition we need to get us through the next 150 years. We can say “Yes” to growing our economy beyond reliance on deadly fossil fuels, which will inevitably run out, and embrace a profitable future with a balance of renewable energy and enhanced efficiency, supporting healthy communities for generations to come.

Last summer, I marched alongside hundreds of other men, women, and children in an effort to raise awareness of mountaintop removal mining and save an important piece of our nation’s history, Blair Mountain, from being destroyed by mountaintop removal coal mining. The battlefield at Blair, spread across the ridgelines slated for destruction, is the site of the momentous coal miner uprising that launched our nation’s workers’ rights movement and remains the largest violent uprising in our Nation’s history since the Civil War. The importance of this site goes far beyond Logan County, and is pivotal in understanding and remembering the struggles of our forefathers to give working men and women basic rights – a history the coal industry would also like us to forget.

On that march, I crossed my comrade Ben’s bridge and entered into the belly of coal’s beast, walking through communities that have been laid to waste by coal pollution and mountaintop removal mining. It became ever clearer that we owe it to our fallen and to our future generations to lead our nation across the divide into a safer, healthier, cleaner future.