For the wounded heroes returning home, sometimes physical therapy isn’t enough. Operation Outdoor Freedom offers veterans an opportunity to participate in outdoor activities and rub elbows with their injured comrades.
“We make it possible for wounded veterans in Florida to enjoy outdoor events,” says Ned Waters, state program coordinator for Operation Outdoor Freedom, a recreational program through the Florida Forest Service. “Anything from hunting and fishing, scalloping, canoeing, camping, anything you can think of, we offer.”
Since 2010, approximately 700 wounded veterans have participated in more than 200 events, experiencing the natural wonders of Florida and finding common ground with fellow veterans.
“We bring wounded veterans together and give them a chance to socialize,” Waters says. “It’s rehabilitative for them to be with people who have had the same experiences and similar injuries as they do.”
Participants have either been awarded the Purple Heart or have a service related disability rating of 30 percent or greater, which makes them an elite group who sometimes find adjusting to civilian life a slow process.
The friendships made in a hunting blind or stories told around a campfire allow participants to let their guard down and enjoy themselves.
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“I do not interact with people too much and tend to keep to myself. However, when I attend events, I can just be me,” says veteran Gordon Woolley. “I haven’t laughed so much in a long time, especially for hours in a blind while trying to hunt.”
Dedicated members of the Florida Forest Service organize the program with the help of partners such as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, state water management districts, the Florida Department of Veteran Affairs, and enthusiastic volunteers.
“The communities get very involved,” says David Hunt, assistant state program coordinator. “Fifteen landowners donate their ranches and help provide food for the weekend’s activities.”
Florida agricultural commodity groups lend their support in the form of local “Fresh From Florida” products. The Florida Beef Council ensures that no matter the outcome of the day’s hunt, there will be succulent steaks for the veterans to enjoy.
The joy and freedom that Operation Outdoor Freedom provides wounded war veterans is matched by their gratitude and humility.
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“I am truly humbled by the outpouring of support that I have seen for this effort so far,” says veteran Jordan Binion. “I really hope that the state will continue to support this effort, and others like it, as one way of providing opportunities for our veterans to get out and reclaim some of their outdoor passions.”
For more information, visit FreshFromFlorida.com.