Tag Archives: Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge

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.

Grant funding gets students outdoors

More students are experiencing all the wonders nature has to offer thanks to new grant funding. It all started last year with the Big Share meeting, convened by Margaret Van Clief of The Nature Conservancy. This meeting brings together environmental educators on the Eastern Shore  to share ideas, brainstorm creative topics to promote learning, enjoy networking and lunch, and in this case last year; tour the rocket launch facility at NASA Wallops Island. It was during this meeting that Lynn Bowen of the ES Migrant Head Start broached the need for outdoor education and off site field trips for her students. And it was during this meeting where the idea of bringing migrant students to the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge took off.

The refuge applied for grant funding from the ES Soil and Water District and was awarded the funds earlier this year. The goal was to support a Monarch Education program for the Migrant Head Start Students in Cheriton, and transportation to and from field trip sites. Migrant students move throughout the year with seasonal crops. So does the monarch butterfly.  Monarchs inspire people; their habitat provides outdoor recreation opportunities like hunting and wildlife observation. Unfortunately, habitat loss and fragmentation has occurred throughout the monarch’s range; and field trips to the refuge for migrant students was a great way to educate future generations.

Grant funds were utilized to purchase bus passes from STAR Transit. John Maher, transit manager, gave the first group of 17 students aged 3-4 and adults a rare treat of riding in their brand new bus down to the refuge. It was during that field trip in late June of this year that students learned about the monarch’s lifecycle, habitat, and their migration from the U.S. to Mexico. Students also had the opportunity to take a butterfly walk to the pollinator gardens with Refuge Volunteers Barry and Caroline Hughes, both vacationing work camping volunteers from Texas. A second field trip in late July allowed the students to assemble huge butterfly life-cycle floor puzzles, observe butterflies and birds from the indoor wildlife viewing area with Park Ranger Rosalie Valente.  Dedicated Refuge Volunteers Kathy Fountaine, Bob Toner and Susan Russell facilitated learning stations which included an indoor touch tank and an interactive story about butterflies. Another outdoor pollinator garden walk was also facilitated.

As if two field trips weren’t enough, students were treated again to a third trip in early September to the Cape Charles Memorial Library. There, Librarians Anne Routledge and Sharon Silvey facilitated story and song time, along with indoor crafts with the group of 12 3-4 year old students. Many of the students had never visited a library before. Students also went on a birding walk to the Cape Charles Fishing Pier, where Refuge Volunteers Joe Woodward and Midge Franco pointed out Ospreys and Gulls to the students.

Throughout this series of three field trips, students had the opportunity to experience the outdoors and connect with nature in a unique way. The language barrier didn’t prove to be a challenge, as once students saw Butterflies (or Mariposas-in Spanish) and Birds (pajaros-in Spanish);  their curiosities were sparked and this allowed for a unique learning opportunity that is experienced outdoors and with the assistance of dedicated volunteers, staff members, and agencies on the shore. The results of this was possible due in large part to Margret Van Clief’s Big Share meeting, where not only the need for outdoor education for migrant students was shared, but also new partnerships.

Eastern Shore Refuge celebrates Memorial Day with a World War II relic

Memorial Day Weekend at the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge allowed 200 visitors to touch a piece of history as the refuge welcomed a relic of World War II.

On Saturday, May 25, the refuge held a ribbon cutting ceremony for the newest addition, a 120-ton, 68-foot gun barrel that was on the USS Missouri when the Japanese surrendered on September 2, 1945, ending World War II.


The 68-foot gun barrel made its final trip to the refuge from Cape Charles in early April. It was restored before the ribbon cutting. Credit: USFWS

During World War II, the refuge was the site of Fort John Custis. Fort Custis along with Fort Story across the bay in Virginia Beach protected the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.  One of the John Custis bunkers known as Battery Winslow housed two 16-inch guns, guarding the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula as stoically as the loblolly pines guard the maritime forest today.  When World War II came to an end and the guns were no longer needed for defense, they were scrapped, becoming pieces of history living only through memory and a few photographs.

While the barrels housed in the Winslow Battery on Fort Custis were destroyed, not all experienced the same fate. Some were retired after the war, put aside and forgotten. One barrel came off of the U.S.S. Missouri Battleship, Barrel #393 was placed on the Missouri toward the end of WWII. It was present during the surrender of the Japanese and went on to defend our troops throughout the Korean War.

The day of the ribbon cutting, visitors went on to watch, as Battery Winslow became the official home of Barrel #393.

Representatives from the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy were speakers as well as a representative from the Battleship Missouri Memorial who was visiting all the way from Hawaii. Veterans from all branches of the military made their way around the barrel and through the battery as they greeted one another and took in the living history. Both Winslow Battery and Barrel #393 were recognized as important defenders of the U.S. during World War II.

One very special guest, Alan Stanz, a U.S. Navy veteran and retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee opened the ceremony with a gorgeous rendition of the national anthem on his saxophone.  Alan Stanz was the visitor services manager at the refuge when he heard about Barrel #393 two years ago. The day of the ceremony, Stanz was able to see his vision become a reality.


Former Service employee and U.S. Navy veteran, Alan Stanz, at the ribbon cutting. Stanz was instrumental in working to get the gun barrel to the refuge and was able to see his vision become a reality. Credit: USFWS

We may be reminded on the refuge that sanctuary has not always been an option.  The soldiers who gave their lives fought in places of terror and chaos, where jungles, deserts and seas have been battlegrounds in the pursuit of peace.

As Barrel #393 has found a home on this National Wildlife Refuge, may the veterans returning from war also find tranquility on refuges throughout the nation where they can breathe in the beauty of our nation and feel the freedom they have risked their lives to provide.  May the memories of fallen soldiers come to life for future visitors to the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge.  Just as we pause and listen for the call of a songbird in the canopy, we also pause to give thanks to those who fought for places like this.

Submitted by Jennifer Lewis, visitor services specialist at the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge