Tag Archives: veterans day

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.

Honoring our Veterans 2015

On Veterans Day, we honor the men and women who have served our country in the armed forces. Here in the Northeast Region, we have many brave veterans who are still serving our nation by protecting and defending America’s wildlife. Below are just a few of their stories.

Cheryl Smith_veteran

Cheryl Smith

Cheryl Smith joined the U.S. Air Force in 2008 and spent her first two years of service at Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, Japan. She later transferred to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska, where she met her fiancé Jason. Cheryl says of her time in the military, “It was the best decision I could have ever made.” Cheryl is currently the administrative assistant for the information technology department for the region and a mom to a precious little girl.

Gary Probst

Gary Probst

Gary Probst started a career in the Air Force in July of 1991 that would lead him to serve in various posts. He began as a medical technician specialist during Operation Desert Storm and he advanced to a position as enlisted accessions flight chief, where he was responsible for all human resource management activities. Currently, Gary is an administrative officer for the Coastal Delaware National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

Kristen Dusseault_af basic

Kristen Dusseault

Kristen Dusseault enlisted in the Air National Guard at the young age of 17, transferring to the Army National Guard at 19. She served in the Signal Corps in West Germany as a second lieutenant for three years. Kristen’s 30-year government career serving in the military, the U.S. Postal Service, and currently as an information technology specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has provided her with life lessons that she continues to draw upon daily.


John Eaton

John Eaton enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1973 as a 17-year-old high school student. He served in the 8th Communication Battalion at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and later transferred to the Naval Air Station in Brunswick, Maine to guard the “special weapons” compound. John feels honored to have had the opportunity to serve our country as a U.S. Marine, and he now works as a cartographer/data manager for the Service in the northeast.

JeDawn military picture

JeDawn Kennedy

JeDawn Kennedy joined the U.S. Army in 2000 and spent four years as active duty and six years in the reserves. She was stationed in Hanau, Germany, while on active duty. JeDawn came to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is now the administrative officer at the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office in New York.


Nate Bush

Nate Bush joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 2002, shortly after the events of 9/11. He served as a rifleman in an amphibious infantry company during two tours in Iraq – Fallujah 2004 and Ramadi 2005. In 2008, Nathan joined the Massachusetts Army National Guard as a combat engineer, serving with the 182nd engineer company in Florence, Massachusetts. He is currently working for the Service as a GIS specialist for the National Wildlife Refuge System, based in the Service’s Northeast Regional Office.

VonPlinsky - Army

Brenda VonPlinsky

Brenda VonPlinsky served as an Arabic linguist in the Regular Army from 1998-2002, primarily with the 101st Air Assault Division at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. During her military service, she divided her time between decoding and translating messages (primarily radio), using direction-finding equipment to locate the source of transmissions, and fixing trucks.  Brenda currently works as a financial specialist in the Northeast Region’s budget and finance department.

David Smith

David Smith

David Smith started his military career in 1988 with the U.S. Army as a telecommunications center operator. He served in a variety of locations throughout the U.S., as well as three years in Weisbaden, Germany. David also worked as an intelligence analyst and was in the 7th Military Intelligence Detachment, 7th Special Forces Group. He started working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2003 and is currently a regional IT security manager for the Northeast Region.

Mike Barrick

Mike Barrick

Mike Barrick enlisted in the Air Force in 1982 and spent much of his service stationed at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts. He was activated five times for Operation Desert Shield/Storm and Enduring Freedom/Iraqi Freedom and spent time deployed overseas after September 11, 2001. Mike achieved the rank of Chief Master Sergeant and retired in 2010, after 28 years of service, as the Westover Aircraft Maintenance Flight Chief. His wife of 28 years, Laura Barrick, is a Human Resources Assistant for the Northeast Region.

Glenn Davis

Glenn Davis

Glenn Davis served in the U.S. Air Force as part of the mission crew aboard the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System. This picture was taken in 1999 at the end of Operation Allied Force in Geilenkirchen, Germany, where he supported NATO by providing surveillance, command, control, and communications capability to joint and allied air forces. Glenn is now the regional deputy assistant regional director for budget and administration. He actively serves as a traditional guardsman in the New York Air National Guard in Syracuse, N.Y.

Steve Boska

Steve Boska

Steve Boska served in the U.S. Air Force for more than 20 years. In 1968, he was stationed at Bien Hoa AB Vietnam, working in the medical field. His final assignment for the Air Force was as chief of administration in the U.S. Air Force Surgeon General’s Office in Washington D.C. Today, Steve is a maintenance mechanic at Potomac National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Virginia. He says of his job with the Service, “I feel there is a purposeful meaning to the job and when I close the shop door at night I have that sense of job satisfaction.”

Robert Meehan

Robert Meehan

Robert Meehan enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1972 and spent most of his military career stationed at Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina as a medical administrative specialist. One of his duties included being a liaison officer at a large naval hospital. Robert now works in the maintenance division at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. He says of his job at Chincoteague, “I am pleased to be a part of keeping a terrific resource intact for future generations.”

We would like to thank all of our veterans for their many heroic contributions to this nation, both then and now. To see more of our employees in action, please visit the service-wide Flickr page for veterans here.
V-mail from North Africa in June 1943, addressed to Darrell's mother. Image courtesy of Darrell.

My father’s military service: Anything but uneventful

Darrell's father, a World War II veteran, in Italy on May 23, 1944. Image courtesy of Darrell.

Darrell’s father, a World War II veteran, in Italy on May 23, 1944. Image courtesy of Darrell.

Darrell and family. Image courtesy of Darrell.

Darrell (left) with his family. Photo courtesy of Darrell.

Today, Darrell Weldon, a military veteran and an IT specialist for our Northeast Region, shares an incredible story of his service, his father’s service in World War II, and the treasured letters that have helped him know his father.

My military career was rather uneventful. But it has a cool connection to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge in northern Maine is one of the places I was stationed when it was part of Loring Air Force Base. I used to work in the Weapons Storage Area. When I see photos of the refuge, such as of the bunkers converted to bat hibernacula in 2012, it brings back a lot of memories. I’ve been in many of those bunkers. Because of the remoteness, we had many close encounters with moose and black bear.

A photo from Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge in northern Maine, where Darrell was stationed. Credit: Sharon Wallace

A photo from Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge in northern Maine, where Darrell was stationed. Credit: Sharon Wallace

Now, my father’s military service was anything but uneventful. My father entered the Army in 1942. In April of 1943 he landed in North Africa. His journey took him to Sicily, Italy, France and then Germany. Coming home in 1945, he did OK for a while. But, as it does with many other combat veterans, the war tormented him and made life an everyday challenge. He was only 61 when he died. December 16 will mark the 30th anniversary of his passing.

I really wanted to know what my father was like before the war changed him. He and my mother were engaged when he left for North Africa. He wrote to her as many times as he possibly could and she would receive his letters as V-Mails (Victory Mail; see below image). Before my mother passed, she gave me all his letters and some photos. These have helped me to know my father in a way that wasn’t possible while he was alive. He wrote with so much passion, expressing his love for my Mom and just longing for the war to end.

An example of Victory Mail/V-Mail from 1943. Letters that soldiers sent from war zones were censored, copied to film and printed back to paper in the U.S. This one from Darrell’s father was written from the troop transport that took him from the states to North Africa. He refers to the "Armory"; my mother went to work at the Springfield Armory to support the war effort at home. The armory is now a National Historic Site (http://www.springfield-armory.com/). Image courtesy of Darrell.

An example of Victory Mail/V-Mail from 1943. Letters that soldiers sent from war zones were censored, copied to film and printed back to paper in the U.S. This one from Darrell’s father was written from the troop transport that took him from the states to North Africa. He refers to the “Armory”; my mother went to work at the Springfield Armory to support the war effort at home. The armory is now a National Historic Site. Image courtesy of Darrell.

Here is an excerpt from V-Mail he sent her on July 10, 1943, from somewhere in North Africa. The Allied Forces have been victorious in North Africa and are about to commence operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily:

“Earlier in the evening while on the way down to church and confession I passed through a small park that at one time must have been a favorite rendezvous of those young in love. Today this place has lost much of its former beauty and many of its numerous trees are little more than stumps. What were once benches are now but scrap wood. A beautiful statue is now beyond recognition and a huge slab of marble is the only remains of what used to be.

My thoughts recalled our yesterdays and “our park” with its little stream in constant motion and its quaint wooden bridge and I whispered a prayer of thanksgiving that this was not my country, our world. It is during moments such as these that I am grateful that I am away from home rather than near standing amid our precious memories subject to this same devastation and ruin. Here I have still the right to dream and trust that when I return all those things I love and cherish so much will still exist and there will be no heart breaking sights such as these to lessen the wonderful joy of that glorious homecoming.”

Darrell's father in front of a Signal Corps jeep in World War II. Image courtesy of Darrell.

Darrell’s father in front of a Signal Corps jeep in World War II. Image courtesy of Darrell.

This letter is one of my favorites because I see my father stopping to reflect on all the destruction that has already taken place and wanting none of it to ever reach our country. And at this point, D-Day, one of the most known events of WWII, is still almost a year away. The war in the Mediterranean Theater was still in its infancy with some of the harshest conditions and bloodiest battles soon to be fought in the invasions of Sicily and Italy.

Thousands of soldiers and sailors would never see home again. My father was one of the “lucky” ones to return home. I can only imagine what he encountered along this cross-Europe trek that forever changed him. I have every respect for the men and women of his time who knew that this war had to be fought and won to preserve the freedoms we enjoy today. Tom Brokaw had it right when he called them “The Greatest Generation.”

Whenever I see one of these veterans still proudly wearing a cap or other article denoting their WWII service, I try to make it point to go up to them and express thanks. Over 16 million served during the war; today there are just over 1 million still alive and we lose over 500 a day.

Image courtesy of Darrell.

A photo of Darrell (top right), who coaches girls’ softball, with players and others at the Austin-Gaughan Field, which is named for two soldiers who lost their lives in the Vietnam War. He led a volunteer effort on Earth Day a few years ago to fix the field, redo the parking area and paint the bleachers and players’ benches. Image courtesy of Darrell.