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Florida guide uses hunting as rustic therapy for combat veterans

Courtesy John Bennett

John Bennett, shot by a sniper while serving with the Army in Iraq, is one of many wounded veterans to go hunting with the Sportsmen's Foundation for Military Families. He bagged a nine-foot alligator in Florida.

In the swamps and river bottoms near his Florida ranch, outfitter Danny SantAngelo has spent 20 years guiding veterans — some without arms, legs or sight — back to soothingly familiar country: in the field, stalking live prey, armed with weapons.

Often, such group hunting excursions were contract jobs that SantAngelo accepted from what he calls "these big, million-dollar-a-year projects for wounded soldiers."

"They take these soldiers and veterans, gather them up from different areas, and take them to a facility like mine where we’d house them, host them and hunt them for a few days," SantAngelo said. "A bunch of soldiers getting together in a camp again, sitting in the woods with guns, and maybe a lot of them even drink too much, so to say. And at the end, they’d high-five each other, hoot and holler and pull out of here.

"We've always donated 100 percent of our services to help these groups. And, of course, I never said no. I always said yes, and did it."


 

For SantAngelo, however, that changed three years ago when, during one outing, he spotted a veteran hunter with tears in his eyes.

“He was having a tough time. He confessed to me he couldn’t believe he’d been so selfish and had come. He’d been gone several years on tours, fighting in combat. He’d only been home a couple of months. But now he was off again with a bunch of soldiers, sitting around this campfire,” SantAngelo said. “He’d felt like he’d walked off and left his family all over again. Well, I began to see that for these guys, there’s really no benefit afterward.”

As large, organized hunting trips for veterans proliferate in popularity, SantAngelo is changing the rules, at least in his corner of the swamp. He's launched the Sportsmen’s Foundation for Military Families, escorting combat veterans — and their spouses, children, parents or siblings — onto land he leases for hunting to spend a few days, as he sees it, of badly needed family bonding.

He’s executing his mission, he said, on a sparse, nonprofit budget, guiding one family per week. His two-person operation — it’s just SantAngelo and his wife, Carla — is headquartered on their ranch along the Kissimmee River in central Florida, about 30 miles north of Lake Okeechobee.

“You don’t come here with a couple of war buddies. You come here to be with your family,” SantAngelo said. “We try to support the people who suffered back home while their hero was away.

“So many of these vets go on different hunting trips all over the country. But I see a lot of bad things going on out there through these big nonprofit groups," SantAngelo said. "A lot of these guys are on medications (for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). They get there with a group of guys they don’t even know. They go to drinking while on medications. Not good. So you have veterans researching all these free hunting trips that are out there for them. But those trips have nothing to do with their families. And what do they really get out of that? They go home and have all the same problems.”

Iraq veteran John Bennett, 41, has been on several of those group-hunting expeditions, despite using a wheelchair since a sniper shot him in 2005 while he was on patrol north of Baghdad, acknowledging: “Those trips are wonderful, don’t get me wrong.”

But two years ago, Bennett personally saw SantAngelo's vision: hunting plus family may equal better days. He headed to Florida to track alligators at night with one of SantAngelo’s hired guides. For that visit, Bennett had hoped to bring his daughter, but she couldn’t attend. Instead, Bennett spent time with another veteran and his family, he said, riding in a pontoon boat, armed with a bow and arrows, searching for his intended catch.

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“It’s really neat to be able to include your family, especially your kids, so they can see that dad can get out there and still do the things he used to do,” said Bennett, who bagged a nine-foot gator. SantAngelo later shipped him the meat. (If a veteran-client's spouse or children prefer not to hunt, they can fish or canoe or ride horses while at SantAngelo's ranch.)

“The military was such a big part of my life,” added Bennett, a former infantry soldier who joined the Montana Army National Guard in 1991. He lives in Cascade, Mont. “Even if I had not been a hunter before, just knowing that I could still shoot a firearm and not be completely freaked out by it was good.”

Indeed, SantAngelo contends hunting and fishing can serve as a form of rustic therapy for combat veterans from all wars, a return to some of the tactics and tools they once knew intimately, but now utilized in a safe, quiet environment.

For that reason, SantAngelo’s foundation foots the bill to bring in and then guide ex-military members with an array of devastating wounds.

Blind veterans who come to his ranch use a double-stocked rifle, sharing the weapon with a guide who — when the prey is in the scope — whispers to inch the barrel slightly up or down, left or right, then instructs the best moment to squeeze the trigger. Veterans without arms can blow into a special tube, which actives the trigger of a rifle. Veterans without full use of extremities use laptops and joysticks to aim their weapons and fire at wild boar, alligators, coyotes and turkeys. SantAngelo also takes his clients on the river to fish for trophy bass.

Meshing outdoors sports with the tricky transition from the battlefield to home front is a concept the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also has adopted. VA officials have seen the same behaviors SantAngelo has witnessed: that many large hunts arranged for veterans morph into drinking parties and families are never invited.

“He’s exactly right,” said Jose Llamas, the community and public affairs officer for the VA's National Veterans Sports Programs. “These other organizations put on weekend trips where it’s hunting, camping, fishing. But it’s drinking, and there’s no follow-up at the end.”

In addition to hosting adaptive sports summits across the country where family members are encouraged to join disabled veterans in surfing, cycling, skiing, fishing and target shooting, VA recreational therapists — via various VA medical centers — routinely take local veterans fishing, Llamas said.

“Hunting is not one of those things you can do in every community,” he added. “But from our Paralympic grant program, we just gave $25,000 to a VA hospital in Grand Junction, Colo., to get the equipment needed to take the (disabled) veterans out hunting.

“What we do is incorporate (hunting, fishing and other sports) into the health-life plan of the veteran,” Llamas said. “The secretary of the VA, Eric Shinseki, is very adamant about this being not just one weekend out of the year, not a vacation, but a step in the right direction of the veteran becoming more productive in the community by living a healthy lifestyle, by being an example to other veterans.”

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