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Florida's Operation Outdoor Freedom helps put wounded veterans at ease

ARCADIA

When Dale Ingham tries to sleep at night, his mind almost always races back to the explosions. The 53-year-old Army veteran cannot escape the chronic pain he feels all over his body, the result of multiple surgeries and severe injuries he sustained when a chemical missile exploded near him in the Persian Gulf War.

But on the night of Aug. 10, Ingham's mind was at ease. The Palm Harbor resident was exhausted and relaxed after spending the day with a group of fellow disabled veterans on a canoe trip down the Peace River, part of a state-run program called Operation Outdoor Freedom.

The group of five veterans and their families gathered in Arcadia and rode buses to the river. They paddled downstream together in canoes, sharing stories and cracking jokes about their time in the military. The weather was perfect, their lunches were free and their spirits were lifted.

"It gets you away from thinking about yourself," Ingham said.

•••

Operation Outdoor Freedom offers wounded veterans across the state opportunities to hunt, fish and explore Florida's state forests. There is no cost. The program provides a type of recreational therapy, a chance for service men and women to escape from their daily struggles with chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder and connect with others who have faced similar experiences.

It was launched in 2011 through the Florida Forest Service under the guidance of Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, who pushed for expanding the program. It was initially based in Polk County, but Putnam's office "put it on steroids and took it statewide," he said.

Since then, Operation Outdoor Freedom has reached out to more than 1,500 veterans. In the past year, its coordinators have organized 70 trips, hosted by a number of volunteer business owners or landowners and funded entirely through private donations, said David Hunt, assistant state program coordinator.

Operation Outdoor Freedom is one of the only state-run, year-round programs of its kind in the nation, Putnam said, and several other states have expressed interest in following a similar model.

"We're blazing the trail," Putnam said.

Beginning this fall, the program will begin offering events on an expanse of land dedicated specifically to Operation Outdoor Freedom. The 5,000 acres are near the Peace River and were recently acquired by the state from the Mosaic Co., Putnam said.

Veterans register online for events throughout the state, such as alligator hunts, deep-sea fishing, weekend camping trips or even a father-daughter quail egg hatching.

Many of the program's participants are enjoying outdoor recreation for the first time since their deployment, or even since childhood. Some of the veterans have become more relaxed in group settings because of their experiences with Operation Outdoor Freedom, Hunt said.

"For some of them," he said, "it's life changing."

• • •

Before heading out to the river for last week's canoe trip, the group gathered with program coordinators and volunteers in Arcadia at the Canoe Outpost-Peace River, the company that volunteered to host the group.

Several members in the group had become good friends with one another from previous Operation Outdoor Freedom trips. They hugged and shook hands, talking about their families, their recent surgeries, their successful hunting trips.

Others were meeting for the first time. As everyone went around a circle introducing themselves, two of the men, Mike Hill and Jeffrey Collins, realized they had something in common. Hill had served in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, and Collins alongside it.

"It builds a lot of camaraderie," Collins said. "The military kind of has its own language."

Putnam also was there, introducing himself to the group and thanking the veterans for their service.

When the group reached the Peace River, the water was 6 feet higher than usual, and the sound of cicadas surrounded them. The light breeze and mild current carried the veterans down the river for several hours. For some, like Ingham, sitting up straight in the canoe for so long added stress to his back pain. But it was worth it, he said.

"You can let your guard down," Ingham said. "You're kind of more at ease with people."

They brought their canoes to rest in a picnic area, where they ate sandwiches donated and prepared by the Wounded Warrior Sportsmen Fund. After lunch, the group huddled for a group picture.

"Anybody who's got PTSD might be feeling kind of anxious right now," Tom Loftis, 47, of Apollo Beach, a former Marine who served in Iraq and in other countries in support of the war in Afghanistan, said as the other veterans chuckled.

• • •

During the canoe trip, Hill, of Tampa and a former Army strategic planner, talked about his late friend, St. Petersburg resident Dan Anders.

Anders and Hill had gone on several Operation Outdoor Freedom trips together, Hill said. During one of the hunts, Anders said the program volunteers from the Florida Forest Service reminded him of the friendships he'd made in combat in Vietnam. They were used to saving lives and putting out forest fires, Hill said, the kind of comrades who would "always have his back."

When Collins, 36, of Holiday went on his first of many trips with Operation Outdoor Freedom, he said, he had to practically be dragged there. The Army veteran was in a rough place at the time, he said, and hardly ever felt up to leaving his house. Collins suffered combat wounds when he lost four of the other five men on his team during a raid.

He ultimately decided to go on a deer hunt in the Withlacoochee State Forest, and it made all the difference.

"I fully credit these hunts for getting me out of my shell," Collins said.

A couple of weeks later, his father, the man who taught him how to hunt, died. He asked Operation Outdoor Freedom coordinators if he could return to the deer-hunting site in the Withlacoochee to lay his father's ashes.

"Every year, they invite me back," Collins said, "so I can hunt with my daddy."

Contact Samantha Schmidt at (813) 435-7308 or sschmidt@tampabay.com. Follow @schmidtsam7.

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