Several years ago, a routine airline flight changed my life forever. While returning from Houston to my home in Orlando, I boarded a flight that originated in San Antonio. With the exception of two associates and myself, the flight was comprised of wounded veterans from our present conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although I’m well aware of the present situation in both of these conflicts, as well as the weekly casualty figures published in the newspapers, I was not aware to the number and severity of the injuries our young soldiers receive. These life-altering injuries mostly result from improvised explosive devices (IED), causing severe burns, multiple amputations and traumatic brain injuries (TBI).
Like most outdoorsmen, I board every flight with a number of hunting and fishing magazines to help pass the time. This flight was no different. I tried concentrating on the magazine articles while trying not staring at all the wounded young men surrounding me. Every time I looked around and saw the devastation these young people had suffered, all I could think about were my two boys and how they could be in the same boat.
I ended up having a long conversation with several of these young men for most of the trip. We did not speak about their injuries or combat experiences, but about hunting. The outdoors was something they all loved and missed. Given the cards that life had dealt to them, they were now concentrating on rehabilitation and not hunting.
That airline flight has evolved into Wounded Warrior Outdoors (WWO). It’s a non-profit organization that provides hunting and fishing opportunities for our wounded veterans. We work very closely with the officers and medical staff at several of our nation’s military hospitals. We exist solely on personal donations and corporate sponsorships. We do not have paid staff and very minimal overhead. Our goal is to provide outdoor experiences, while focusing on quality and not quantity.
Those of us who spend time in the outdoors know first hand how calming and how energizing the experience is. As soon as I place the key in the lock of our ranch gate, I can feel the stress of daily life begin to ease. By the end of a few days, I’m a new and rejuvenated person. Why should our soldiers be any different?
On our recent spring bear hunt in British Columbia with Otter Lake Guide Outfitters, all our guests were injured by IEDs. Most explosions also result in some degree of TBI, in addition to the obvious physical injuries. TBIs begin with a concussion and escalate in severity from there. One of the main rehabilitation needs with TBI is to improve the interaction of what the eyes see and what the brain is able to process.
One of our main reasons in choosing British Columbia was the style of hunting and our rehabilitative goals. We would hunt bears using the spot-and-stalk method because bating is now allowed. Therefore, each hunt would involve physical exercise, as well as countless hours using binoculars in searching for game. Both of these activities have rehabilitative and therapeutic benefits for our hunters.
One of our recent hunters would be a prime example of what we consider a successful trip. This hunter, Lt. Dan Cnossen of Kansas, is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and an elite Navy SEAL. An IED explosion injured him this past September, resulting in the loss of both legs above the knee, as well as numerous other injuries. He arrived in May, new to his prosthetic legs, having only had them for six weeks.
The legs were worn only for a short period of time each day while his body adjusted. While walking, he was very unstable using two canes to aid his balance on flat, solid surfaces. We’re all aware of the physical toughness and determination that makes Navy SEALs legendary within the military. However, what I saw this young man accomplish was nothing short of remarkable.
He was determined that this bear hunt would be a great opportunity for him to work on his rehab. Every day he would set personal goals to attain the next day, and every day he exceeded his goals. By the end of our trip, he was walking more than 1 1/2 miles a day, while gaining more than 500 feet in elevation. His goal for the week was to walk in some uneven terrain covered with grass.
Our recent trip was successful by my original expectations. Every hunter, including Dan, took his trophy spring bear. As I returned home, I felt guilty because I believed that I continued to receive more from these soldiers than we were able to give. The gift they continue to give is what keeps us all safe and free. I hope that we never lose either of those freedoms.
I know that we’re all still struggling through very tough economic times, but anything that you can do to help us continue to provide our veterans with these outdoor adventures would be greatly appreciated. Please visit www.woundedwarrioroutdoors.com or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.