Taking combat vets outdoors to heal unseen wounds
By John N. Felsher
In March 2007, during his second tour of duty in Iraq, Mark McDuffie’s life changed forever.
He worked alongside an explosive ordnance disposal team when a roadside bomb exploded. The blast killed two men and horribly injured McDuffie, a 10-year Air Force veteran from Geneva, Ala. The bomb severely injured his legs and feet. He also suffered numerous shrapnel wounds to his face, throat and elsewhere.
“I went through 58 surgeries, some experimental,” the veteran recalls. “I can still walk with my own two feet and enjoy the things I did before, but can’t run. I’ve been blessed by the Good Lord to be able to still get around.”
Medically retired from the Air Force in 2009, McDuffie took another government job as a civilian. After a year, he finally had enough. He decided to do something not only to help himself, but others who suffered battle wounds.
“I got fed up working for the government,” he says. “I walked into a colonel’s office and said I was going fishing. Everyone laughed. I spent considerable time on the water learning how to deal with everything and started bringing other wounded warriors fishing. Then, more people asked me to run charters so I did that to help defray the cost of taking those warriors.”
A licensed captain, McDuffie runs Wounded Warrior Fishing and now charters excursions from Panama City, Fla., to Orange Beach, Ala. He also fishes professional redfish tournaments.
One day, McDuffie met Jeep Sullivan, a Baptist preacher from Bonifay, Fla. The now retired pastor shares McDuffie’s vision of helping wounded veterans. He founded Jeep Sullivan’s Wounded Warrior Outdoor Adventures in 2011. Not affiliated with Wounded Warrior Inc. or groups with similar names, Sullivan’s organization assists combat veterans to heal mentally, emotionally and physically through various outdoors adventures. He arranges hunting and fishing trips, golfing outings and other activities for recipients of Purple Hearts, the badge of honor given to those wounded in battle.
“Several years ago, I started taking some World War II vets hunting and fishing and got the idea to found a non-profit organization,” Sullivan recalls. “We’re a ministry that enables combat-wounded veterans to enjoy God’s great outdoors. We enable our Purple Heart recipients from all conflicts to get together in an outdoors setting at no cost to them. We try to do anything outdoors that they would like to do. We want to help them do things that they may not be able to do on their own.”
Not a veteran himself, Jeep saw what his father-in-law endured after returning from Vietnam. Wayne Mitchell, a badly wounded Marine, took about two years to physically recover from his injuries, but mental and emotional scars stick for life. Seeing how Mitchell coped with his injuries inspired Sullivan to do something for other vets.
“Many vets back then were spat upon when they went through airports in uniform. Wayne got a job and went on with his life. He ran marathons and numerous other races. We want all Purple Heart vets to know that someone loves them, cares for them and wants to minister to them.”
Although based in Florida, Sullivan’s organization brings veterans on adventures wherever possible. In Alabama, warriors hunt hogs and deer. McDuffie takes them fishing.
“We probably do more in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi than other places,” Sullivan says. “We even did an alligator hunt in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta earlier this year. For the bass tournament, the vets came in Friday before the event. We fed them at a big fish fry and put them up in cabins for the night. The next day, they fished.”
Sullivan’s group tries to pair older vets from Korea, Vietnam and even World War II with younger Iraq and Afghanistan vets.
“They help each other,” Sullivan explains. “It’s all part of their healing process. Our goal is to help these soldiers to smile and forget their problems for a while as we honor them for their service. The difference between our organization and similar groups is that we work to facilitate healing the whole soldier — body, soul and spirit. We understand that our wounded military personnel are injured as a family. Therefore, they must heal as a family. We incorporate family outings along with our adventures. My wife, Meg, takes the vets’ wives shopping, to the beach and other places.”
One vet at the September fish fry told a story. He said that he spent three years sitting in his bedroom trying to drink himself to death. He first participated in some hunting activities with Sullivan’s group about two years ago and joined several more since.
“He’s been with us on numerous occasions and now brags about how much the experience helped him,” Sullivan says. “For younger guys, just seeing older vets get through the same problems makes them believe that they can do it too. Getting together with comrades who shared similar experiences helps tremendously. It also helps them to know that many ordinary Americans are behind them and willing to do whatever we can to help them.”
John N. Felsher is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Semmes, Ala. He co-hosts a weekly outdoors show that is syndicated to stations in Alabama. For more on the show, see www.gdomag.com. Contact him through his website at www.JohnNFelsher.com