HUNT

OP­ER­A­TION PAY IT FOR­WARD IS RE­BUILD­ING THE LIVES OF AMER­I­CAN HEROES, START­ING BY GET­TING VETER­ANS BACK INTO THE GREAT OUT­DOORS.

Gun World - - Contents -

In Oc­to­ber 2010, while on his sec­ond tour of duty in Afghanistan, Sergeant J.D. Williams stepped on an IED and was se­verely wounded. Mirac­u­lously, Sergeant Williams sur­vived the ex­plo­sion, but as a re­sult of the at­tack, he was left a triple am­putee. He cel­e­brated the sec­ond chance he had been given while si­mul­ta­ne­ously learn­ing to ad­just to his new lifestyle dur­ing the weeks and months that fol­lowed.

OVER­COM­ING CHAL­LENGES

It’s no se­cret that the wounds of bat­tle are not limited to phys­i­cal in­juries. For Williams, who had served du­ti­fully and ably on two tours of duty de­fend­ing our coun­try, the most ba­sic daily rou­tines had be­come a chal­lenge. In the midst of this, though, Williams was of­fered an op­por­tu­nity to take part in a pro­gram known as Op­er­a­tion Pay It For­ward (OPIF) that was de­signed specif­i­cally for wounded veter­ans.

This non­profit was es­tab­lished, in part, as an ef­fort to get wounded veter­ans back into the out­doors and help them re­de­fine their lim­i­ta­tions—both phys­i­cal and men­tal. Af­ter his in­vi­ta­tion, Sergeant Williams at­tended an event in Texas, where he hunted fal­low deer. He suc­cess­fully took a large buck in vel­vet with a bow he’d learned to draw us­ing his teeth.

“When you leave the mil­i­tary, you lose more than your job,” says Staff Sergeant Mike Burns, who, along with fel­low vet­eran Sergeant Eric Pauley, founded OPIF in 2016. “When you’re med­i­cally re­tired, you lose part of your iden­tity. You no longer have those re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.”

An­other miss­ing el­e­ment in the life of a sol­dier re­turn­ing to civil­ian life af­ter med­i­cal re­tire­ment, SSG Burns says, is ca­ma­raderie. Wounded veter­ans, he says, feel they are iso­lated; that no one else truly un­der­stands what they are en­dur­ing—even their fam­ily mem­bers and close friends. Veter­ans self-se­clude, he ex­plains. That can lead to a re­duced qual­ity of life and emo­tional and men­tal strug­gles that, sadly, de­grade the qual­ity of life of many of our na­tion’s heroes.

“OPIF al­lows these sol­diers to re­con­nect with other re­turn­ing vets,” SSG Burns says. “Our pro­grams are sim­i­lar to a de­ploy­ment in many ways: The par­tic­i­pants are given a pack­ing list. They of­ten eat de­hy­drated food and some­times sleep on the ground. And they’re sur­rounded by other veter­ans who un­der­stand what they’re go­ing through. When many of these sol­diers ar­rive for the pro­gram, they’re stand-off­ish. Many can­cel be­fore the trip.”

But those who do come, SSG Burns says, al­most in­stantly be­gin to re­lax. They feel at home around other veter­ans and en­joy the peace and fa­mil­iar­ity of na­ture. They hunt, fish, shoot sport­ing clays, prac­tice their long-range ri­fle skills— and, most im­por­tantly, they be­gin to test their bound­aries.

STAND­ING OUT BY REACH­ING HIGHER

OPIF is grow­ing rapidly. In 2017, the pro­gram served slightly fewer than 100 vets through its out­door pro­grams. There are many non­prof­its that pro­vide sim­i­lar events for veter­ans, but two crit­i­cal el­e­ments set OPIF apart.

“Ev­ery­one who works at OPIF is a vol­un­teer,” SSG Burns says. “No one takes a salary.” That means that do­na­tions are fun­neled di­rectly into its pro­grams. Ninety-eight cents of ev­ery dol­lar raised goes di­rectly to pro­vide ser­vices for veter­ans, and that money al­lows par­tic­i­pants to attend pro­grams at no cost to them. Air­fare, lodg­ing, hunt costs, food and ev­ery other as­pect of the ex­pe­ri­ence are all funded by OPIF do­na­tions. All veter­ans have to do is get to the air­port ... but that’s not even manda­tory; for in­stance, SSG Burns drove his per­sonal ve­hi­cle sev­eral hun­dred miles to pick up a vet­eran who didn’t have a means to attend.

There’s an­other crit­i­cal el­e­ment that sets OPIF apart from many sim­i­lar non­prof­its: As the OPIF name im­plies, it’s the im­pe­tus to have at­ten­dees be­come am­bas­sadors for the pro­gram and to take veter­ans from their own com­mu­ni­ties out into the field to share sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences. Sergeant Williams, for in­stance, has started his own non­profit that takes

... OPIF IS ABOUT GET­TING WOUNDED VETER­ANS OUT OF THE HOUSE AND BACK INTO THE OUT­DOORS. IT’S NOT AN IN­STAN­TA­NEOUS FIX, BUT IT’S THE CAT­A­LYST MANY OF THESE VETS NEED TO HELP GET THEIR LIVES BACK ON COURSE.

veter­ans into the field. By cre­at­ing a net­work of ex­pe­ri­enced am­bas­sadors, OPIF is help­ing its mis­sion ex­pand across the coun­try and reach ex­po­nen­tially more sol­diers each year.

“The goal of the am­bas­sador pro­gram is to au­to­mat­i­cally build ad­di­tional chan­nels for veter­ans re­turn­ing home,” SSG Burns says. This leads to more wounded sol­diers be­ing taken afield with other vets who un­der­stand their chal­lenges and who can re­late on a per­sonal level with the deep phys­i­cal and emo­tional pain that many have ex­pe­ri­enced. It also pro­vides a bul­wark against the iso­la­tion and en­trap­ment that many re­turn­ing mil­i­tary vets ex­pe­ri­ence upon re­turn­ing home.

AD­DI­TIONAL HELP

OPIF’s suc­cesses have not gone un­no­ticed. The group is work­ing with Craig Bryan, a doc­tor of clin­i­cal psy­chol­ogy who spe­cial­izes in veter­ans’ af­fairs. Dr. Bryan is a vet­eran him­self, so he un­der­stands the unique pres­sures and chal­lenges veter­ans face fol­low­ing a med­i­cal re­tire­ment. In ad­di­tion, Bot­tega, a com­puter pro­gram­ming school based in Utah, is now of­fer­ing veter­ans an in­ten­sive, 17-week “boot camp” com­puter pro­gram­ming class taught to veter­ans by veter­ans. This pro­gram has helped these vets find em­ploy­ment that pays well.

Ul­ti­mately, how­ever, OPIF is about get­ting wounded veter­ans out of the house and back into the out­doors. It’s not an in­stan­ta­neous fix, but it’s the cat­a­lyst many of these vets need to help get their lives back on course. And, most im­por­tantly, these vets are of­fered an op­por­tu­nity to go afield with other veter­ans who un­der­stand, at least to some de­gree, the chal­lenges that they face. As hunters, we ap­pre­ci­ate all that our sport and the nat­u­ral world have to of­fer, but only rarely do we con­sider the ther­a­peu­tic value of our time in the field with our close friends. The team at OPIF has man­aged to use the heal­ing power of the out­doors to help im­prove the lives of in­jured veter­ans—and they do so with­out tak­ing a salary (last year, vol­un­teers logged 7,500 hours and drove more than 40,000 miles in sup­port of the pro­gram).

It’s a dif­fer­ent type of ser­vice than many of these vets pro­vided while on ac­tive duty, but it’s no less valu­able to our na­tion’s heroes.

For more in­for­ma­tion or to nom­i­nate a vet­eran for the OPIF pro­gram, visit OPIF4OurVets.org. GW

THE TEAM AT OPIF HAS MAN­AGED TO USE THE HEAL­ING POWER OF THE OUT­DOORS TO HELP IM­PROVE THE LIVES OF IN­JURED VETER­ANS—AND THEY DO SO WITH­OUT TAK­ING A SALARY ...

OPIF of­fers a wide va­ri­ety of out­door recre­ational ac­tiv­i­ties for veter­ans. The or­ga­ni­za­tion at­tempts to get veter­ans off the couch and back into the field while si­mul­ta­ne­ously train­ing them to take what they’ve learned and “pay it for­ward.”

I Many of the OPIF events have el­e­ments that re­mind veter­ans of be­ing on de­ploy­ment—pack­ing gear, hik­ing, eat­ing food in camp and so forth. Ad­di­tion­ally, those peo­ple are sur­rounded by other veter­ans who have ex­pe­ri­enced the same chal­lenges.

One of the next steps in OPIF’s mis­sion is in­creas­ing events for veter­ans and their fam­i­lies. As Staff Sergeant Mike Burns points out, this networking helps cre­ate chan­nels for veter­ans to not only help them­selves, but to also reach out to other re­turn­ing sol­diers.

Time spent in the field can help speed up the heal­ing process and pro­vide veter­ans with the mo­ti­va­tion they need to start liv­ing a more ful­fill­ing life.

OPIF of­fers a va­ri­ety of pro­grams in ad­di­tionto its hunt­ing and shoot­ing events. There are also trail rides, ATV rides and camp­ing. Nev­er­the­less, all of these pro­grams share the same goal: get­ting re­cov­er­ing vets into the field with oth­ers whohave served.

Re­gard­less of a vet’s mo­bil­ity lev­els, OPIFis ca­pa­ble of help­ing them live out their dreams in the field. Plus, the ca­ma­raderie helps vets feel that they are once againpart of a team.

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