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2008 SHOT Show — Outdoors as therapy for injured vets

2/3/2008

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LAS VEGAS — It was Veteran's Day 2005 when a roadside bomb in Iraq blew off Robert Leonard's right leg.

An Army sergeant in the 3/7 Calvary, Leonard, now 25-years-old, had grown up hunting and fishing in New Mexico. When a veteran's advocacy group called the Wounded Warrior Project invited him to make his first trip back into the outdoors, on a fishing trip, he wondered how much his body would allow him to do.

"You don't know what to expect," he said Saturday at the Shooting Hunting Outdoor Trade Show. "You don't know if you're going to be able to do the outdoors things, and do the things you used to be able to. I was scared of going on a fishing trip, because I didn't know how it was going to be getting in and out of a boat, trying to reel in a big fish.

"Getting out there and doing it," he continued, "showed me that I still could."

Since then, Leonard has hunted deer, ducks, elk and bear, part of a series of trips the Wounded Warrior Project has arranged for veterans injured in America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 501(c)(3) organization provides money and support for those vets. But it was at the SHOT Show to gather attention for its forays into the outdoors and for its newly added job placement services.

"We had seen the cause and effect of previous generations — World War II, Korea, Vietnam — that didn't get that help right up front. And it stagnated them, and it stagnated their families," said Al Giordano, the organization's deputy executive director of programs and services. "Our mission is to make sure it's the most well-adjusted generation of American veterans in our history."

For Leonard and others, that process back begins in the woods and streams. "There's a lot of therapy behind what's going on in the outdoors," he said. "Laying in the hospital isn't good for you. It messes with your mind."

Ryan Kules, the Warriors to Work program director, himself lost his right arm and leg to a bomb. With the help of a special support frame, Kules said, he was skiing down a mountainside before he was even walking, four months after his injury, clarifying later that he spent the first month of that stretch in a coma.

He cited veterans' discipline and sacrifice as assets when they look for jobs. "Companies should be able to hire warriors, no question," he said.

To date, Wounded Warriors has led 153 veterans on outdoors trips, including dogsledding in Maine and salmon fishing in Alaska, according to Ryan Pavlu, the organization's Outdoors director.

The organization relies entirely on private and corporate donations for its finances, and the kindness of strangers for invites to the great outdoors. You can learn more at www.woundedwarriorproject.org.

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