By Matt Cobble
Veterans in the United States are some of the bravest individuals on the planet. These noble men and women voluntarily sign up for a career that could send them anywhere in the world. For six years (four years of active duty, followed by two years of inactive duty, or Individual Ready Reserve [IRR]), they can be sent to far-flung battlefields, assigned to assist in relief efforts in regions in turmoil, or assigned to ships out to sea for months at a time. And even those stationed stateside could receive a call at any time to pack up and prepare for deployment.
Military service changes a person. Most former servicemen (and women) show a greater sense of discipline, enhanced maturity, and can make those who served less agreeable.
Some veterans, however, come home more permanently changed than others. Those veterans who are physically wounded and/or mentally traumatized often find they have a tougher climb to return to ‘normal life.’
Veterans in Florida have an extra tool available to them – the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Outdoor Opportunities for Florida’s Wounded Veterans, or more simply, Operation Outdoor Freedom. Communications Coordinator Kinley Tuten sums the program up by saying “Operation Outdoor Freedom provides unique opportunities for recreational and rehabilitative experiences to wounded veterans on state forests, agricultural lands, and private lands throughout Florida.”
Since Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam launched the program in 2011 (which is administered through the Florida Forest Service), more than 3,680 veterans have participated in nearly 490 events ranging from alligator hunts to canoe tours to overnight camping trips, all in the company of their comrades-in-arms, and at no cost to them.
The camaraderie is important, giving veterans both a chance to unwind and forget about their cares for a day, while being surrounded by others who understand them the best – their fellow vets. And this connection to other veterans gives them a chance to talk through their experiences and troubles, which in turn helps the healing process. This is doubly important among the veteran population due to the long-term effects of injuries and traumas received in the field – the national suicide rate among veterans is approximately 40 per 100,000 persons, compared with the national average of 13.4 per 100,000.
To qualify for events arranged through Operation Outdoor Freedom, the veterans must meet certain criteria. First, they must be a citizen of Florida. Secondly, they must have been honorably discharged from their respective service. Lastly, the veteran must have a service-related disability with a disability rating of 30 percent or higher from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. (The disability rating is a measure of how severely the veteran’s ability to work is impacted by the disability. Zero percent means the veteran’s ability to work is unaffected, while 100 percent means complete inability to work. These ratings are rounded to the nearest ten). Alternately, the third qualification is considered met if the veteran was awarded a Purple Heart.
In response to the popularity of Operation Outdoor Freedom, and due to the support of state agencies and private donors, the Forest Service has been able to open two dedicated facilities for Operation Outdoor Freedom and other wounded veteran events. The first, opened in 2015, is Camp Prairie located in the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest in southern Polk County. The second, Peace River Camp in Arcadia, opened in January 2018. Both facilities feature bunkhouses, an outdoor kitchen, and Peace River Camp also hosts a fire pit, dedicated to World War II veteran Henry Kenneth Katter. A third facility, which will be located in the Withlacoochee State Forest, is scheduled to open later this year.
Operation Outdoor Freedom offers two categories of events for veterans. The first, guided events, is all-inclusive for the vet. Meals, housing, equipment, and any required assistance are provided. For the second, unguided events, only the location itself and a few amenities (such as a primitive campsite or restroom facilities) are provided. However, in unguided events, each veteran is allowed to bring a non-hunting guest as an assistant.
Registration for Operation Outdoor Freedom events is linked to from the project’s website, OperationOutdoorFreedom.com. Veterans may view the list of upcoming events and apply for a spot on those trips they are interested in. Applicants will be informed 30 days prior to the event if they have been selected to participate, and will be expected to submit documentation for their disability rating or Purple Heart credentials within five days of receiving notice.
Local businesses or individuals who wish to sponsor an event with Operation Outdoor Freedom may find more information by visiting OperationOutdoorFreedom.com.
By Matt Cobble