Peace, joy and brotherhood in the great outdoors

While on deployment in Afghanistan, Army Specialist Eric Bakken learned that his team leader SSG John Bates and fellow Specialist Eric Finniginamm had never hunted or fished. As an outdoor enthusiast, he wanted to share his love of outdoor sports, so he promised to take them out upon returning to the U.S.

Subsequent conversations led them to begin developing a program to give veterans the opportunity to get outdoors and connect with other veterans. Finniginamm was killed in Afghanistan in 2010, and The Fallen Outdoors (TFO) was launched in his honor five years later.

TFO staff member Andrew Morton and his wife Shasta, TFO secretary, with son, Riley, have been instrumental in the success of the national TFO program.

The commitment

Open to both men and women, whether veterans or active service personnel, TFO is a nonprofit organization that organizes trips for various outdoor sports or activities – hunting, fishing, archery, camping, hiking, cycling and clay shoots. Participants can enjoy a sport they love at little to no cost, experience brotherhood and connect with likeminded individuals.

Transformation from the military’s regimented structure back to civilian life can be difficult. Illinois TFO Team Leader Jason Wryn retired from the Army in 2012 after 21 years of active duty. He understands the challenge for those returning from duty.

“These trips are especially important for our veterans,” he explains. “You dedicate your life to the military. It’s not just a job, it’s a way of life. It’s your whole culture. You always hear service members call each other brother and sister because it is a family. When you move back home and there’s not a big military presence, you find yourself not fitting in. You don’t have anybody who understands what you’ve been through.”

Because of this, everyone associated with the TFO organization is required to be or have been a servicemember and a volunteer.

Brothers saving brothers

Once an event is finalized, a plea to find participants is posted on the national TFO website. Trips may include a duck hunt for eight people or a salmon fishing trip for six. Interested parties send in requests and winners are randomly selected. Occasionally, if someone has a special circumstance, that formality is skipped.

TFO’s reach has quickly grown to more than 40 states, and the Washington team is one of the most active in the country. Washington TFO Team Leader and Army Veteran Andrew Morton recalls setting up a fishing trip for a group of veterans. The night before the trip, Morton called one veteran to finalize details. He was concerned because the veteran sounded down and basically “out of it.” Morton coaxed him into going, saying, “Just pack everything up for the day and we’ll talk about it.” The vet showed up and they headed out on the boat to fish. “We caught a few steelheads,” says Morton. “He started opening up and told me about his experiences in Iraq and what he saw, what he felt, and about some of the brothers he lost.”

After packing up the gear that day, the vet told Morton that his call the night before kept him from committing suicide. “That vet is now very active in the program, talking about his experience… how fishing saved his life,” Morton says. “The program works. It really works.”

Morton’s wife Shasta, also an Army veteran and TFO’s national secretary, echoes that sentiment. “We’re honestly out there saving these veterans’ lives because it gives them an outreach of other veterans. We don’t force anybody to talk about anything they don’t want to, but you get on a boat or a trip, you start talking and people open up about how they feel about their own experiences, and it sometimes saves their lives.”

Reconnecting in Illinois

Closer to home, Team Illinois was recently reorganized. Wryn began working to restart the program with just $400 in his pocket and is looking to expand the number of trips the team can offer. He counts on social media, media interviews and event coverage, the Illinois website, booths at outdoor show, and word of mouth for promotion. If he sees someone with a veteran’s license plate or wearing a veteran’s hat, he’ll engage them in a conversation about TFO.

COVID-19 has affected the TFO organization, so fundraising efforts are more important than ever. In addition to sales of T-shirts and other Team Illinois-related merchandise, raffles and membership dues, donations from individuals, various organizations and events are enabling the team to continue providing trips. The generosity has been overwhelming.

Hunting clubs have donated waterfowl, whitetail deer and upland bird hunts. Fishing clubs have helped provide fishing trips for crappie, catfish and other game fish. Food purveyors help feed event participants and coordinators. One donor is even providing a 5-week-old certified black lab hunting dog.

TFO participates in Fishing for Freedom, held annually in Quincy. Hosting more than 300 military personnel and veterans from 25 states, the multi-day event is one of the largest military fishing events in the country, and an important source of income for Team Illinois. An auction raises thousands of dollars, and proceeds are donated to various veterans’ groups. The tournament was canceled this year due to the pandemic, but organizers are optimistic about hosting it in 2021.

“The money made in Illinois stays in Illinois, and every dollar raised is used to support the program and its mission,” says Wryn. “We spend our own money on hotels, food, gas and donate our time, because we truly believe in what we do.”

Mission possible

While TFO is still in its infancy, it has made remarkable progress and Wryn has high hopes. “One of these days I’m going to go to a show and ask somebody, ‘Have you heard of The Fallen Outdoors?’ ‘Oh yeah, I follow you on Facebook. I love what y’all are doing. You know, that’s why I came to the show.’ I just believe we are making such a huge difference in veterans’ lives.”

If you serve or served honorably in the military, you are eligible to be a member and a participant. Bakken says, “You are my brother and sister. I do not care how long you served, what branch, what job, combat or garrison, wounded or untouched. The Fallen Outdoors is here for you, and I am here for you.”

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The connections made throughout the country since the inception of The Fallen Outdoors have changed lives and created memories. Out of respect for their privacy, interviews with participants are not included in this article, but testimonials such as these are proof of TFO’s impact:

“I stumbled upon The Fallen Outdoors on Facebook and it has been a life changer ever since. As a disabled veteran, it is difficult for me to get out and hunt on my own. TFO has connected me with many veterans who have kept in touch ever since. Between fishing and hunting adventures, the professional staff has helped me every step of the way and made these activities enjoyable once more. I will forever be grateful to this incredible organization!” – Andy H.

“I don’t know where I’d be without TFO. I don’t know that my family would have made it. This is the best organization. It’s really as simple as that. As a veteran, husband and father, I am forever grateful for what TFO and its donors have enabled me to become, and it is all because of a fishing trip.” – Drew E.

“Many hunting and fishing groups tend to exclude women. TFO has been the total opposite. They have been very encouraging towards beginners and women, especially women who are just getting into hunting and fishing. When you tell the group you are new to something, they are quick to offer suggestions. TFO nation has given me the confidence to give hunting and freshwater fishing a try.” – D.W.