I was recently asked why I am so passionate about our work with Operation Open Season. I didn’t have to think about my response long because there were two very distinct occurrences early in our efforts that made me realize how important this type of work truly was. I can remember one of my first guided deer hunts for Operation Open Season, I picked up a young man who had served in Iraq, and like so many from this modern era of warfare, he had sustained injuries from an IED. He was a wonderful young man, gracious, and very thankful for the opportunity to hunt a private property. As we drove to the property he told me about his experiences in combat and how he sustained his injury. I was overwhelmed with his story and thought how lucky most of America is that we have these brave young men and women who have sacrificed the comfort and safety of America to go and fight. A fight that keeps each and every one of us safe and free. A fight that exposes them to unthinkable dangers every day.
As we parked and got ready to head out for the mile or so hike to his deer blind, he again thanked me for the opportunity and I could tell that this was a great experience for him. I have hunted private property all my life and had taken for granted that most folks don’t have the kind of access that I was blessed with. What he said next really touched my soul. He said, “This is the first hunt I’ve had in over eight years. I used to hunt with my father when I was growing up, and it was some of the most wonderful memories that I have. I love to hunt!” I asked why it had been so long since his last hunt, and his answer was overwhelming. He said, “I’ve tried to find hunting opportunities for myself and young boy, but things have changed over the years.” Curious about what had changed, and assuming his injury was in some way playing a role in limiting his opportunities for hunting, I asked what had changed. He said, “All the property has been leased up. There is only a handful of opportunities and those are usually reserved for the landowner or his close friends. Unfortunately, hunting has become a “rich man’s sport.” I hadn’t realized it but he was right. Hunting and land access has changed dramatically over just the last ten years. On another occasion, I was helping guide a hunt for a double amputee on some wonderful turkey hunting properties. Again, I was taken back by his thankfulness and excitement on the opportunity for a great day in the field. His comments echoed what the previous hunter had said about access to property. He said there were programs for wounded veterans to access land but there was a two to three year waiting list… What this young soldier said next sealed to deal for me. He told me about his injuries and how depressed he was in the hospital after the attack. He said, “I was trained to be a warrior, I had so much comradery with my guys, I was an elite soldier with access to the best weapons in the world, and now I can’t even get out of this hospital bed without help.” He said, “I didn’t feel like a man anymore”. He then went on to say that getting in the field with some good guys on a hunt, having a gun in his hands again, sharing the comradery of the hunt with new friends, it all made him feel for the first time since his injury like a man again! I decided to start working with other land owners to see if there was any way we could open more opportunities for the great men and women. I knew if land owners could hear these stories they would be committed to helping provide more opportunities.