Wings of Valor program helps veterans
It is the visionaries in this world that make a difference. Patti Richards, executive director of Great Basin Wildlife Rescue, a local nonprofit organization, has dedicated her life to rehabilitating injured birds and veterans of war. It was Richards’ success in the care of injured birds that gave her the inspiration to pair wild birds with disabled veterans.
Richards’ sensitivity to the challenges faced by men and women serving in the military began at an early age when her father returned home from World War II. Later in life, her work at the state Department of Workforce Services entailed finding work for the unemployed, many of whom were veterans. “Depression and PTSD are commonly associated with the pressures of active duty. The idea of partnering raptors with veterans felt like a natural thing to do. Getting out into nature and working with birds seems to release the inner turmoil often experienced by those returning from war,” Richards said.
Inspiration for the Wings of Valor program took flight in 2011 when Richards participated in a Wounded Warrior Project with one of her rehabilitated golden eagles. “It occurred to me that the symbolism of the golden eagle being rehabilitated and released into the wild to honor soldiers who died in service to their country related directly to my vision of assisting veterans when they returned home. I just instinctively knew that getting them outside working with birds would help them deal with their depression. What military person wouldn’t feel empowered with a raptor on his arm?” Richards said.
Program sponsor APF Industries of Salt Lake City has funded six veterans in the program, but more sponsors are needed to extend the opportunity to others. The Division of Wildlife Resources monitors the falconry program, ensuring the safety and care of the birds. Presently, only veterans who served in the Afghanistan or Iraq wars are eligible to participate.
Recognizing the importance of the eagle in the Scouting program, Richards provides Eagle Scouts with an opportunity to earn their awards by constructing shelters to house the birds. Every veteran has different needs and so the mew, or shelter, is personalized and constructed to meet any special needs for the individual. If wheelchair access is needed, the mew is built to accommodate
easy access to care for the bird. Upon completion, Richards brings one of her rehabilitated eagles to the Scout’s Court of Honor. “It is a thrilling experience to see a live eagle at a ceremony honoring Scouts for their hard work and dedication. There’s really nothing more memorable,” Richards said.
For centuries, eagles have inspired men and women in this country to be the best they can be. Sgt. Tyler Miller, a volunteer at the Great Basin Wildlife Rescue and a participant in the Wings of Valor program, says falconry has given his life direction after returning from his one-year deployment in Afghanistan. He found the challenges of rebuilding his life were eased when he was accepted into the program.
“I served as a structural repair specialist. I was required to maintain Apache and Blackhawk helicopters. The lives of the pilots who flew those helicopters were in my hands. It was very stressful being responsible for the safety of our Special Forces. I needed to be able to look those pilots in the eyes and assure them that their helicopters were air-worthy. Many sleepless nights were spent checking and rechecking everything over and over in my mind. That pressure, compounded by my inability to stay closely connected with my wife, left me feeling a deep sense of disconnection when I missed the birth of my daughter. The most important thing for me today is to make up for that time I was away from my family. I missed out on the first six months of my daughter’s life. Today I focus on rebuilding my relationships. Patti and the Wings of Valor program have played a big part in doing that.” Miller said.
Although Miller suffers from occasional panic attacks and anxiety, he utilizes the virtues of his military service to rebuild his confidence in himself and in his ability to create healthy relationships with his family and his falcon. “As an apprentice falconer, I have learned that with determination, I can create successful relationships in my life. If I can create a trusting relationship with a wild bird, I know I can be successful in creating a trusting relationship with my own family,” Miller said.
For more information about Wings of Valor or scheduling an eagle for a Court of Honor, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Former Sgt.Tyler Miller is shown with his Red Tail Hawk.