Most military veterans can recall when they first realized they had volunteered for a life-changing experience. For me, it came quickly after arriving at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.
We were fed at a chow hall and then, around 9 or 10 p.m., taken in groups to the austere buildings we would call home for the next several weeks. As we stood on a drill pad beneath the elevated barracks, a friendly junior noncommissioned officer organized us into straight-line columns and then cheerfully taught us the basic commands and positions of parade rest and attention.
He left us at parade rest, ordering us to simply stand by.
So, we waited, and waited, and waited some more—carefully wiggling our feet and knees in the dark. Finally, approaching midnight, we heard a steady “click, click, click” advancing behind us, growing louder with each step. Silence. Then, a booming “Atten-hut!”
We all did our best to snap smartly to attention in our civilian clothes, long-haired, boot camp rookies that we were.
“I am Technical Sergeant Robert Hall. I am here to welcome you to your new life as part of the most powerful fighting force this world has ever seen,” declared the man in the Smokey the Bear hat. Right then, you knew this man was going to challenge you.
In a scene you might recall from movies, our Air Force TI (technical instructor) not DI (drill instructor) as he or she is called in other services, paced our ranks, glaring at us, looking for roaming eyeballs or little things to pick apart. One recruit had brought a trumpet. Hall directed him to open the case and play us all a tune. It was a surreal late-night scene in the cool Texas night.
Technical Sgt. Hall then spoke a little about what was ahead. “We will determine if you are able to follow simple instructions and function effectively as a team,” he boomed in a “command” voice.
Beds waited upstairs—everyone was tired—but no one was getting there until we passed a test. Everyone had a suitcase or some other piece of luggage. When Hall ordered, “Pick ’em up,” every member of the squadron lifted his bag. When he said, “Put ’em down,” everyone dropped his bag. There was no leaving the pad until all 50 bags dropped at once in a perfectly singular “thump.” It took close to two hours.
Morning came early. Hair was shorn to the scalp, uniforms issued, immunizations delivered from what seemed to be a pressurized nail gun.
By day 3, fresh memories of fishing Lake Champlain or hunting the Green Mountains were pushed to the background. Assimilating and being accepted into that big, unexplored world in front of me was the total focus.
Military training, my Air Force work, and finishing college with evening classes dominated the next couple years. There was no time to hunt, but always a little time to fish, whether it was overnight excursions to a fine military recreation center Fort Sill operated on Texas’ Possum Kingdom Reservoir or walking the edges of water hazards at the Merkel Country Club throwing spinner baits for big bass. The club managers, God bless them, had a soft spot for GIs.
I was always a bit of an ambassador for fishing, readily teaching Air Force friends who were fishing novices some of the finer points of catching bass or using an auger to punch through ice.
I was never stationed closer than 1,700 miles from home until my last tour at Grissom Air Force Base, Indiana, after nearly 8 years of active duty. Some fellow airmen thought I was nuts to tuck signed leave slips in my pocket and drive 850 miles to Vermont for the privilege of freezing my butt in a longshot quest for a whitetail. Reconnecting with family, friends and traditions was important. Those trips were therapeutic – outdoors balm for the soul.
The point is, love for the outdoors was omnipresent, even during busy, climbing career ladder years. It made the good times better and the awful times more tolerable.
Leaving active duty and transitioning to various civilian roles with the Department of Defense offered more control over where I would live and how I would spend my increased free time. Enhanced financial wherewithal expanded opportunities. And, I began writing about my experiences, just as I had always dreamed of doing as a boy while reading dog-eared copies of Outdoor Life at Gervais’ Barber Shop.
How Can We Help?
During my 34-year military career, wearing both military and civilian attire, I noticed that people who liked to hunt or fish usually gravitated to each other, creating small support networks. Some veterans serve a single hitch or two and leave active duty. All, particularly wounded warriors, face a transition.
People routinely ask the heartwarming question, “How can we help veterans?” A vast complement of organizations, nonprofits and more are set up expressly to assist veterans. Many include programs organized around outdoor pursuits, especially for wounded warriors.
Some of the organizations doing fine work include “Honored American Veterans Afield”, which hosts hunting and range day events for veterans and their families. Outdoor industry supporters, active duty military personnel, veterans, and their families come together to support the efforts.
Another is “America’s Heroes Enjoying Recreation Outdoors”, a veteran-run nonprofit that works to get veterans out of their homes and enjoying “screenporch therapy” with other veterans. A major goal is to create networks of veterans who assist one other and prevent the tragedy of veteran suicide. Hunting, fishing, golf outings and more are part of the experiences.
“Project Healing Waters” is another that has been around since 2005, early in the Iraq War. I’ve worked with that program and attended some events. Fly fishing events bring vets together, using the calming nature of the sport to soothe troubled minds and bodies.
A smaller group, flying a bit under the wire, is “House in the Woods” in Lee, Maine, founded by Paul and Dee House in memory of their son, Joel, who was killed in Iraq. Joel loved hunting Maines’s north woods and, today, his parents host veterans on bear, deer and moose hunts, as well as fishing and other events.
There are many, many others. Supporting them any way you can is important. My personal perspective, though, is that you don’t have to broker support through a veteran-related charity or program to have an impact. Direct outreach – the kind of grassroots community support that has made this country great–can work fine and it is usually more cost-effective. After all, there is no donation money involved where people are drawing paychecks or traveling to support events or fundraising.
Sometimes, making a personal connection is the most fulfilling, for both you and the veteran.
In 2004, before the deluge of nonprofit corporations began setting up to benefit wounded warriors, I was working at Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia as an Army civilian. I was also a part-time outdoors writer. The war in Iraq had just begun. Military members, some seriously injured with bodies damaged for life, were recovering in military hospitals. Many were people like me who loved the outdoors, with places and activities dear to them. Worry that they may never experience that life again, at least not in the near term, had to weigh heavy.
I was invited to a sponsored deer hunt that fall so I asked the host, “How about we do something nice for a vet?”
Of course, the answer was, “Yes.” I was soon cold-calling Walter Reed Army Medical Center explaining who I was and my goal of taking a wounded inpatient out for three days of deer hunting.
“We don’t know. Nobody has ever asked that before,” was the first reply, but the doctor or nurse to whom I was speaking liked the notion and wanted to help make it could happen.
A few weeks later I was picking up young Army staff sergeant Trevor Phillips who had lost his arm and suffered several other injuries from an improvised explosive device in Mosul, Iraq. He had grown up salmon fishing and hunting in the Pacific Northwest. Trevor received his new, prosthetic hand a few days before the hunt.
It took some effort and that military-prized concept of teamwork, but Trevor got his deer on the afternoon of the last day. Everyone celebrated the shared triumph.
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The next year, we began staging a wounded warrior hunt out of Fort A.P. Hill, bringing 6-8 wounded warriors from the hospital for two full days of deer hunting and fellowship. Most of us managing the hunt were either active duty soldiers or veterans. We guided, cooked, talked quietly in hunting blinds with our guests, helping some reconnect and introducing others to a world they had not yet experienced. We sought no corporate sponsors and invited no politicians–nothing that would let these wounded brethren become fund-raising tools. They appreciated that.
We had the benefit of a military organization behind us, but it still came down to personal outreach. Anyone can make a similar difference at the grassroots community level. If you are a person who loves the outdoors and has access to outdoors experiences, simply research and find veterans living in and near your community.
Some organizations can be immediate resources, including VA hospitals and facilities, nearby military installation retiree or veterans’ affairs offices, community centers, Veterans of Foreign Wars or American Legion Posts.
Thank You for Your Service – Here’s an Invitation
As simple as it may sound, sharing that you have a boat and you want to take a veteran fishing for a day can work. Some organizations may be unable to share personal information about veterans due to privacy considerations, but they can surely contact the veterans and inform them of the opportunity. Some places post notices on bulletin boards or in newsletters or similar network communiques.
Let friends and neighbors know that you are willing to help get a veteran outdoors. The results produced in this fashion may be the most beneficial since the personal third-party assurances might allay any skepticism about your purely altruistic motives.
When a veteran takes you up on an offer, many experts suggest not prying into personal experiences the person may have had during their service, especially if they were combat-related. Some veterans readily share details, others find it difficult or impossible. Just be a supportive new friend and mentor, if needed.
Marine Corps retired senior NCO Mark Oliva, now with the National Shooting Sports Association and a board member of some outdoor-oriented military nonprofits, said he agrees that help doesn’t have to come from formal programs nor does it have to benefit just combat veterans or those with visible wounds.
“There is healing in the quiet of the woods. There’s a soothing of slowing down and listening to the forest go to sleep as the darkness creeps in. The best part of hunting with veterans, though, is the shared experience. That’s what most veterans miss about their time in uniform,” Oliva said.
“They trusted and they called people from all walks of life their brother or sister because they share an unspoken promise that no matter what happens, they will walk this journey together,” Oliva added.
Almost every veteran has had someone say, “Thank you for your service.” It is always appreciated. But, as Oliva also points out, “If that handshake thanking a veteran for their service is important, think of how valuable it is when you’re able to open up the outdoors to them. That’s when people connect, sometimes without a word being said. It’s that someone cared enough to share that experience with someone else.”
Veterans come in all sizes, colors and backgrounds – just like the people of the United States of America. That’s the way it should be. If you have room in your boat someday, or an extra space in a duck blind or a deer stand, or simply planning a visit to a refuge to look at birds and wildlife, there may be a veteran aching to get out of the house.
See if you can find one–just one–and make that personal difference. The reward exceeds the investment and the donation of your time and friendship is often better than writing a check.
Happy Veterans Day.
—Ken Perrotte lives in King George, Virginia. He is the syndicated outdoors columnist for the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star newspaper, the conservation field editor for the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Turkey Country magazine and a regional migration alert editor for Ducks Unlimited. Check out his work and some great wild game recipes and videos at outdoorsrambler.com.