There are an estimated 21.5M veterans alive today, and of them, 3.5M are disabled. Thanks to both private and public programs, more of them are finding ways to get outdoors to help them heal both mental and physical wounds. Many chapters among the national organizations, like the National Wild Turkey Federation and Ducks Unlimited, hold special raffles for wounded warriors, or set aside specific hunting days just for disabled veterans.
Many states also offer special Disabled Veteran hunting licenses that allow them to shoot from their vehicle. And of course I’m sure you’ve heard of the Wounded Warrior Project that offers programs and services to severely injured service members during the time between active duty and transition to civilian life.
But the Wounded Warriors Guide Service offers cost-FREE, accessible hunting year round to wounded warriors at all levels of service-related disability whether they’re still active or retired. Wounded Warriors Guide Service is a one-of-a-kind guiding service, 100% volunteer, 100% free to wounded vets – regardless of their disability status.
Brian Ophus, formerly a Sergeant in the National Guard, is now the executive director and co-founder of Wounded Warriors Guide Service. He served in Bosnia and Iraq before returning home to Minnesota where he and fellow serviceman, Jeff Woodford, founded the non-profit to get disabled service men and women out on the hunt. In 2012, the company expanded and added three additional chapters – one in North Dakota, one in Wisconsin and one in Southern Minnesota.
I caught up with Brian to talk about the program. This is part one of a planned three-part story. In part two we’ll relive the deer hunt of a lifetime for wounded warrior, Kurtis Lamb. And later this fall I’ll travel to Northern Minnesota to meet up with the Wounded Warriors Guide Service and report on an epic goose hunt. Life’s a grind!
Kat: What inspired you to found Wounded Warriors Guide Service?
Brian: In 2008 a friend was recovering at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Minneapolis with compound fractures to his leg after being ejected from his truck when an IED exploded. He was having to learn how to walk again and sitting around that hospital among so many other disabled vets was really bringing him down. So [Jeff] and I checked him out of the hospital and took him out muzzle-loading.
Kat: And was he successful?
Brian: Not that first year. We set him up in a blind on the family farm, which is about 260 acres, but he never got a shot off. But he had so much fun, that he asked to go out again the next year and bring along a friend [another disabled vet]. This time he succeeded, shooting a 6-point buck – his first deer ever. He shot it with his Thompson Center 50 cal. Muzzleloader. And it was at this point that Jeff and I said to each other “Why don’t we make this a business?”
Kat: What was your plan to attract disabled veterans who might be interested in some free hunting?
Brian: We went door-to-door targeting VAs and VFWs. I also contacted the organizers of the Minnesota Game Fair and told them what I was trying to do and asked if they’d be willing to donate us a booth for the 2-day event. The owner, Chuck, was really interested in the idea and told him to go get my non-profit status and he’d donate us a booth.
Kat: What did you know about starting a non-profit?
Brian: Nothing really. But I got some help from a lawyer who was also a veteran and donated his time to help me with the paperwork. A $170 filing fee later and we had ourselves a booth.
Kat: So now you had some exposure, but how were you going to raise money?
Brian: We started off by raffling away miscellaneous outdoor and hunting items in our booth. I had gotten some donations from the companies that I pro staff for, like Lucky Duck, and with my own money went out and bought some additional items and inexpensive duck calls. One of the other exhibiters, from Dalton Outdoors, had stopped by our booth and said, “you’re not going to raise much money like that, here, raffle these off,” and he handed me a couple 870 shotguns to raffle off. About 5 minutes later he came back and said he knew how he could help us further, and that was when he introduced us to Tom Knapp. Tom Knapp was doing three speaker sessions a day for Dalton Outdoors as a representative for CZ USA firearms, and at the end of every session he’d make an announcements about our booth, what we were doing and he really helped us sell those raffle tickets. We made $5,000 profit after the two day event. CZ Usa firearms is now one of our official sponsors.
Aside: Embarrassingly, I didn’t know who Tom Knapp was. During my phone interview I googled him and learned that he was a legendary trick shooter. Tom achieved 3 world records for hand-thrown clay targets. And according to his website was “ regarded as the finest ambassador that American shooting sports has ever known.” He passed away earlier this year.
In it’s second year, The Wounded Warriors Guide Service more than doubled its revenue to $13,000 through local donations and several grants. Last year, they doubled that number to $27K. With part of the money, the guiding service purchased a custom-made aluminum pontoon boat (to accommodate veterans in wheel chairs), and also purchased a 7 x 16 enclosed trailer to haul it and all their equipment. Beavertail donated a mud motor to help complete the custom build. The pontoon accommodates two guides and two hunters so they can get real deep in the swamps where they never thought they’d be able to get to again. The team was also able to purchase an Action Track wheel chair ($10K). Additionally, the guiding service raked in another $15K worth of product donations including a case of 5,000 loads of Spectre Shot.
Kat: What do you and the wounded warriors hunt?
Brian: Anything and everything. It’s up to the veterans. They tell us. But waterfowl hunting is my specialty.
Kat: Where do you hunt?
Brian: Mostly private land – my own family’s farm and neighboring properties. There’s even a senator who lives near by – and he let’s us hunt his rice checks. There are a lot of rivers, lakes and ponds that crisscross all over the property. Our Lucky Duck decoys do really well. You can put out half a dozen decoys…plus a couple quiver butts and you’re set.
Kat: How do you accommodate severely handicapped hunters.
Brian: With layout blinds, or if a guy is in a wheel chair we can set him up on a field edge, situated in the reeds, use some burlap, so that he is camouflaged. Beavertail makes these really great laydown blinds that are kind of spring loaded – so it makes it easy for the guys [who might be missing a leg or two] to “pop up” and shoot.
Kat: How many applicants submit an application every year?
Brian: Between 100- 120. We took out over 100 veterans in 2012
Kat: Have you ever had to deny an applicant?
Brian: A couple of years ago we ran out of funds. And it was really hard.
Kat: Can a veteran hunt more than once?
Brian: Yes, if spots and funding is available.
Kat: What is covered in a typical guided hunt?
Brian: Everything. It’s 100% free to disabled veterans. We cover their lodging, meals, ammo, guns, license fees, airfare or car rental – if they’re coming from far away – heck, we’ve even covered gas for those that have come to out to hunt with us and found themselves a little short on cash.
Kat: What are the restrictions?
Brian: None. We take everyone – including veterans with PTSD and TBI.
Kat: So what hunts do you have lined up for 2013?
Brian: We’ve already started booking guys for early goose season here in MN which is typically the first week of September; then there’s the very popular Youth Day Hunt here – it’s two weeks before duck opener – and it’s a father (or daughter)-son veteran hunt. ‘It’s an amazing sight to see…a special bond.” Then there’s the duck season early in October – somewhere between the 5th and 10th.
Are you a wounded warrior? Click here to submit your application. Reservations are made on a first-come, first-service basis. You do not need to be a resident of Minnesota to qualify.
Wounded Warriors Hunting Service