Freedom Hunters: Outdoor experiences serving those who have served

On Veteran’s Day, and every day, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife thanks veterans for their service. The Service is an acknowledged leader in veterans’ hiring – using every program and hiring authority available to introduce veterans to careers in conservation. In fact, about 20 percent of our workforce has served in the military (link to photo album of our veterans). We thank them for their dedication and sacrifice in the military, and their continued contributions to their country in civilian roles. 

To mark this day, we share this story from Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia.

Charles Sands has served his country in both military and civilian roles. The two overlap when he facilitates hunting programs for veterans and their families at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. That is his sweet spot.

For the past four years, Chincoteague has partnered with the non-profit organization Freedom Hunters to offer disabled veterans and their families a chance to hunt on the refuge free of charge. The two organizations share a common goal of getting people outdoors.

Ranger Charles Sands and Jacob, a program participant, sighting in a crossbow.

The veterans and their families take part in a two-to-three-day hunt program. Three programs are offered annually: one on Chincoteague Refuge and two smaller ones on Eastern Shore of Virginia Refuge.  The program creates a relaxing space for veterans to gather for meals and fun activities, fostering relationships with loved ones and the veteran community while enjoying the great outdoors.

As a veteran and park ranger at the refuge, Charles Sands has been a part of the Freedom Hunters program in two capacities — as a Fish and Wildlife Service employee helping provide these opportunities, and as a former participant. The Freedom Hunters program is close to the hearts of the folks who facilitate the event, and Chase hopes participants love the experience as much as he did.

Ranger Charles Sands helping a hunter scope in her crossbow. Photo credit: Max Lonzanida/USFWS

“My favorite thing about the hunts and events we help out with is seeing the joy that our warriors get from spending time with other veterans,” says Sands. “Also, witnessing the veterans enjoying hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation with like-minded individuals, or people that might be going through the same struggles they are.”

The program provides all of the equipment needed to participate in the hunt, including motorized chairs or other specialized equipment, tailoring accommodations to the group’s needs and requests. The veterans’ skill levels can range from novice to advanced, from folks who have never hunted before to experienced hunters who want to get back into it. Each participant is matched with a mentor to guide them through the elements of hunting, including safety, checking and processing game, and anything else they may like help with.

Successful Freedom Hunters at Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge. Photo credit: Max Lonzanida/USFWS

The impact of the program is profound, boosting morale and touching the lives of both the veterans and the organizers.

In expressing his passion for the program, Sands recounts the following incident:

There was a wife whose husband had unfortunately died, and she reached out to Freedom Hunters, and said, ‘My son is asking me about hunting. My husband was big into duck and goose hunting, but I have no idea about it, and he really wants to learn.’ After hearing the story, the Freedom Hunters took the teenager out, supplied him with decoys and the proper equipment, and put him with a guide.”

“A group like that I can back up, in my personal life, and in my work.”

The guidance and support doesn’t end with the hunt.  Freedom Hunters checks in with veterans and families periodically to see how they are doing and offer to take them out to various other events, including sailing and fishing.

Veterans can learn more about the Freedom Hunters program through Facebook, at the group’s website, and visiting Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.  Although there are sometimes repeat participants, the program is in high demand, and organizers try to rotate different veterans and families so that everyone gets the opportunity to get out and enjoy this one-of-a-kind experience.

In 2013, Freedom Hunters awarded Chincoteague Refuge a plaque and an American flag for the refuge’s hard work “accomplishing the mission of getting America’s heroes back outdoors.” They are proudly displayed in the refuge’s visitor center.

Freedom Hunter leaders have awarded Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge staff for their work helping veterans.

Charles Sands doesn’t need physical acknowledgments, however. His reward comes from sharing his love of the outdoors with his fellow veterans and seeing those who have served their country enjoy its natural resources.

Following is a list of hunts for veterans on national wildlife refuges in the Northeast Region, with contact information:

Veterans Fishing Program in Western Massachusetts: USFWS contact: ​Jen Lapis, Visitor Services Specialist, Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, 413-548-8002 x8114.

Wounded Warrior Turkey Hunt in Maryland:  USFWS contact: Brad Knudsen, Refuge Manager, Patuxent Research Refuge, 301-497-5580.

Annual Disabled Veterans Fishing Event in New Jersey:  USFWS contact: Ken Witkowski, Biological Science Technician, Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge, 973-702-7266 ext. 14.

Freedom Hunter Program in Virginia and Rhode Island:  Virginia– USFWS contact: Charles Sands, 757-336-6122 x 2315. Rhode Island– USFWS contact: Karrie Schwaab, Deputy Refuge Manager, Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, 401-213-4402.

Veterans Fishing Day in Northern Maine:  USFWS contact: Amanda Hardaswick, Federal Wildlife Officer, Northern Maine National Wildlife Refuge Complex, 207-454-7161.

Wheelin’ Sporting Hunts in New Jersey: USFWS contact: Chelsea Utter, Wildlife Refuge Specialist, Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge, (973) 702-7266 x18.

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