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.
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 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.”
“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 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.
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.
“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…”
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.
Brad Fitzpatrick is a full-time freelance writer based in Ohio. His works have appeared in several print and online publications, and he is the author of two books: The Shooter’s Bible Guide to Concealed Carry and Handgun Buyer’s Guide 2015. He has hunted on four continents and was a collegiate trap and skeet shooter before becoming a writer.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the July 2018 print issue of Gun World Magazine.