Florida program brings disabled veterans into the wild
By BILLY COX | Sarasota Herald-Tribune | Published: January 6, 2018
ARCADIA, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Henry Katter spent much of World War II in Italy as a machine-gunner aboard a Sherman tank. As the winter campaign swung into the Apennine mountains and temperatures plummeted, Katter and his colleagues spent countless nights shivering in the dark, wishing they could huddle around a fire — an untenable prospect with enemy forces nearby.
So when, some 70 year later, the Katter family decided to contribute to a novel veterans project called Operation Outdoor Freedom, Henry's son Ken decided to donate what his father and his buddies longed for so long ago — a big brick firepit. And at Friday's ribbon-cutting ceremony outside rural Arcadia, the 92-year-old former tanker warned a gathering of politicos, foresters and veterans about a raft of exaggerated campfire tales in the years to come.
"I'm opening the door to some of the wildest stories you ever heard," said Katter, standing several yards away from a commemorative plaque in his honor, also donated by Ken. Like his dad, Ken Katter is a combat veteran. He was wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq.
Like its forerunner facility Camp Prairie in Lake Wales, Camp Peace River is part of the Florida Forest Service's Operation Outdoor Freedom, a program designed to give qualifying veterans a chance to spend a day or two hunting, fishing, hiking, horseback riding or boating in the Florida outback. Supported entirely by private funds and volunteers, this newest recreational option sits on a 5,000-acre tract bordered by the Peace River and Horse Creek. The spread is inhabited by an abundance of wild boar, turkey and deer.
Weekend expeditions are offered free of charge to veterans who have earned either a Purple Heart or are rated for at least at 30 percent service-connected disability. Since it began more than five years ago, Outdoor Freedom has hosted 430 related events, from lobster-diving to cattle drives, at various locations across the state. Florida Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam who presided over Friday's event, said nearly 3,500 veterans have participated.
'I've seen it work'
The state acquired the Peace River land in 2014 as part of a lawsuit settlement with phosphate giant Mosaic. With a $135,000 assist from some 70 businesses, networks and individuals — not to mention labor donations — Camp Peace River is now a permanent facility that can accommodate up to 20 veterans at a time. Built to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the operation has a two-bedroom four-bunk clubhouse with a fireplace, a separate bunkhouse, a screened-in kitchen and a cleaning station.
According to Forest Service Duty Officer Supervisor Derek Doig, in addition to a full contingent of weekend volunteers who prepare and serve fresh game, each veteran will be accompanied by an individual guide to help them negotiate the terrain, which is fitted with wheelchair-accessible blinds. As an assistant event coordinator, Doig figures each weekend outing tallies roughly $1,500 in overhead, which is shouldered by donors.
"I've seen it work," said Doig, a Desert Storm-era veteran who never made it overseas because of a training injury. "I wasn't there for my guys, so this is my way of giving something back. The camaraderie is special. They come here on a Friday afternoon not knowing anybody, and by Saturday they're exchanging phone numbers and emails. I've seen it go from gun-in-mouth to a totally different attitude."
Among the donors credited was the Florida Cattleman's Association, whose citation was accepted by Executive Vice President Jim Handley of Kissimmee. Handley and fellow ranchers began opening up their private land to veterans at the program's inception, and he says the encounters are unforgettable.
"There was one fella who said 'I haven't held a weapon in six years. It was a life-changing experience and I don't know if I can do it again.' Well," Handley recalled, "I told him this isn't about shooting, this is about getting outdoors with other guys who've been there, and enjoying yourself. You'll be fine."
"Our goal as Floridians is to make Florida the most military and veteran friendly state in the whole country," said Putnam, a Republican gubernatorial candidate. "This, to my knowledge, is the only program of its kind in the nation, where we're dedicating now the second dedicated facility to meet the needs of our disabled veterans." He said Outdoor Freedom hopes to open at least two more facilities.
Veterans rumbling over the graveled roads to Camp Peace River will also get a glimpse of the land's colorful history.
The remains of massive guardrails are far sturdier than what it takes to contain cattle. That's because billionaire Brad Kelly once kept a menagerie of "exotic hoof stock" — giraffes, antelope, rhinoceros — at the ranch. But according to Forest Service District Manager Duane Weis, property destruction caused by Hurricane Charley in 2004 prompted a selloff.
"You can still see some of the shelters where they used to keep the animals," he said.
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