SAN ANGELO, Texas — Sterling County offers 8,000 acres of open space with an abundance of wildlife, picturesque scenery and opportunities for wounded veterans to enjoy the outdoors.
That space — also known as Purple Heart Ranch West and Purple Heart Ranch South — has flourished thanks to the support of a community whose compassion for wounded veterans is evident in its actions.
Purple Heart Ranch West, near Sterling City, “was the first one,” said Josh Kisner, senior director of outdoor activities for the Military Warriors Support Foundation. It “was really the birthplace of the Purple Heart Ranch idea.”
Both Sterling County ranches were donated by private landowners and are managed by the MWSF to benefit veterans and their families.
MWSF is a San Antonio-based nonprofit organization that has provided recreational outdoor activities and mentorship as part of its Skills 4 Life program since 2007.
Recreational outings include hunting, fishing, golf, sporting events and family vacations.
“We are probably taking out between 100 to 150 individuals per year on all types of outdoor adventures,” said retired Army 1st Lt. James Elkins, assistant director of field activities. “We are only getting larger because of the support, since it got started, with the people of West Texas.”
The Purple Heart Ranch concept has grown to include two other states: Kansas and North Carolina.
“The mentoring system shows men, women and children they can be independent in the outdoors,” Elkins said. “It helps them in showing that even though they carry around this pain and injury, they can learn to step out of their comfort zone to enjoy something that yesterday they might not have thought was possible.”
Elkins said typically a hunting trip lasts three to four days, but that varies depending on the type of hunt and location.
Originally from Alaska, Elkins said he always had a passion for the outdoors.
After being shot in the head in Afghanistan more than two years ago, Elkins was relocated to San Antonio for rehab.
His wife found out about the Skills 4 Life program online and encouraged him to take part to help him heal.
“It really gave us a much-needed escape, a break from the hospital and the hospital environment,” Elkins said. “I stretched my legs out in the mountains of West Texas, and it was a really, really healthy experience that my wife and I needed.”
Elkins said the experience strengthened his marriage and reinforced his love for the outdoors. He has been volunteering ever since.
The program is open to the combat-wounded and Purple Heart recipients, service-connected disabled veterans, Gold Star families and family members of those serving.
“The Golden Star program was established for the children of the fallen soldiers and all the service members that gave the ultimate sacrifice with their lives,” Elkins said. “Within the Skills 4 Life program we take these kids under our wings and show them the true hunting heritage where they learn from the ground up.”
Hunting trips are offered to veterans at no cost to them or their families. The program supplies all hunting equipment, lodging and food to make the trips as carefree as possible for veterans and their families.
Program volunteers help participants who do not have a hunting license get one before the trips, at no cost.
The program runs on donations, volunteers and community support.
MWSF is hosting a sporting clay fundraising shoot on Saturday at the San Angelo Claybird Association. The event will include food and a live auction.
It’s the organization’s first fundraiser in San Angelo, and the goal is to raise enough money to fund the program for an entire year, said volunteer Rodger Williams.
“Our hope is to expand it in the future,” Williams said. “We want to take some guys from Tom Green County.”
As of March 22 there were 100 shooters participating, and Williams said they hope for at least 200.
Volunteers from Goodfellow Air Force Base will help work the shoot and auction, which includes firearms, ice chests, jewelry items and knives.
MWSF has about 20 to 30 volunteers, and the cost for trips varies drastically depending on location and the type of hunt, Elkins said.
“There is no funding goal in mind,” Elkins said. “The people of West Texas have already been so gracious the last thing we want to do is place an exact number on them; really anything will help.”