AFI in Washington State

Sage Advice

Washington AFI Volunteers Build a Team


Under clear blue skies, eight volunteers from across the Evergreen State exit their vehicles on the border between ranch and public lands. The low winter sun paints highlights in the sage and snow-covered steppe. While the weather may not be ideal for all forms of hunting, it is almost perfect for spotting grouse. Shawn McCarthy, the state’s outgoing AFI Liaison and organization’s oncoming National Chair, calls the group of strangers together…


Service to the Armed Forces Initiative (AFI) volunteers is concentric. Before becoming members and volunteers of AFI, these men and women raised their right hands and swore an oath. AFI's mission is to provide adjunct outdoor therapy to and provide meaning through conservation for veterans and other military-associated individuals. However, this mission can be challenging to achieve without dedicated support. Almost entirely based on a volunteer force, AFI finds itself driven by men and women already in service to their country.


Shawn McCarthy has been a leader with AFI since 2022 when he stood up Washington’s program with fellow BHA member Justin Spruiell. Speaking of one of Washington’s first events, Shawn states “I recruited some great mentors that just happened to be best friends for this. Things that came out of this event set the foundation for how AFI-Washington was going to operate.” The event would be significant for the state’s future, as it set the stage for a hail-storm of success in the following year. No success isn’t without deliberate planning, and action, however. “First, we must engage our military community to get them into these wild places. Through education and mentorship, we were going to improve our attendees' well-being. Second was to effectively plant seeds of knowledge and ownership for future conservation-minded folks from the military.”


The next year would be fruitful, as the state held numerous events ranging from fishing to stewardship events like the “Garbage and Grouse Roundup.” Bonds were built, and the organization was growing. Unfortunately, this success didn’t come without setbacks. 


Most prominent “was the all too commonplace military transfers and folks moving out of state,” Shawn states. “As a Liaison, I could only be as strong as my team, and I was going to lose three of the five core volunteers due to moving out of Washington. And on top of that, one of which was my right-hand man.” For anyone who has lived it, such transfers can either feel like a blessing or a curse. Sometimes it brings new opportunities, new blood, and new relationships. Other times it means dismantling a varsity-level team, your kid transferring schools right before homecoming, and strained relationships. “We had to hit the drawing boards for 2024 and focus on how to keep this machine called Washinton AFI moving down the tracks.”


Despite such losses, the state retained continuity through the likes of Joshua Reynolds. But even though he remains with the state, he still finds himself on the fringe as he plans his transition out of the military. “It has shown me a way to continue my civil servant duties outside of the military, creating a community that provides camaraderie of like-minded individuals that focus on the conservation of precious resources.” Humble and the state’s most experienced volunteer, Joshua has become somewhat of a mentor for others joining the club in Washington.


In the wake of heavy turnover, Shawn got to work with Justin to begin a new wave of recruitment. “We had a strong social media presence with Justin, and word was getting out about who we were. I relied heavily on that as a volunteer recruitment push. This just so happened to coincide with me being on “Cal’s Week in Review” with Ryan Callaghan. I hadn’t planned on sitting in on that podcast, much less receiving so many emails from those looking to get involved with AFI. That was the shot in the arm Washington’s AFI needed!”


With new volunteers and leadership flowing in, Shawn was eager to capture the new energy and direct it into something measurable. This took the form of a team-building event in Washington’s Columbia River Basin in the dead of winter. Throughout the cold and snowy weekend, Shawn led a group of seven other volunteers through AFI education, surveys of recently reintroduced sharp-tailed grouse, and identification of the “Fire Bird’s” natural predators. A new team was being formed.


“It constantly amazes me when a group of complete strangers with military backgrounds gets together, how quickly they gel.  They speak the same language, they get the inside jokes, and they understand things that only people who served understand.  It's like coming home.” This is Todd Oller's first event as the oncoming Liaison for Washington, and despite the challenges ahead, is confident and effervescent. “Take a group like that, where serving others and doing something that's bigger than themselves is in their DNA, and the sky is the limit to making positive changes to the things that they're passionate about.” Having served 24 years in the Air Force, and now an AFJROTC instructor, Todd is well equipped to guide Washington AFI’s team through its next chapter. "I'm super excited and humbled to be surrounded by great men and women like this, as we all strive to become better conservationists and protect the things we hold dear."


Regardless of background, something most hunters and anglers can agree upon is good food. Barrett Rambie, a native to south Texas, prepares a venison and wild-hog rendition of discada – a combination of meats and vegetables cooked on a “disco.” To Barrett, “Conservation is based on the premise of being good stewards of the land and its resources. Therefore, it's my personal goal to help provide information and experience to bring people into hunting and fishing so they can cherish their experiences and help fight for the cause of true conservation.” Although Barrett is based out of Joint Base Lewis McChord, he still maintains ties to his home state where he operates a guiding business. Like others in the group, he has built a network of relationships that span hundreds or thousands of miles.


A mosaic of backgrounds and experiences is essential for consistent success in any group dynamic. Diversity that carries relationships and bonds across borders is even more powerful. That is the potential and silver lining of departing volunteers. Be good stewards of your state – because regardless of the current hands holding the AFI banner, the state and its lands remain. Be good stewards, and those nomads among us will continue to fight for conservation wherever we go.


…The previous day’s blue-bird sky has now been painted a dull grey. It’s just as cold, and snow has begun to fall. This gathering is the first time most of the hunters have met each other, representing four services from across the state. Despite the excitement of finding the elusive source of fresh cougar tracks or the thrill of being ambushed by the stark hum of a grouse taking flight a few feet away, the volunteers have found purpose in something bigger. They seem content just to be together.


Jacob Greenslade served 7 years in the United States Marine Corps as a Logistics Officer. He has found a calling to conservation through the process of teaching himself to hunt over the last year. Currently, he, his wife, and his two sons live in southwestern Washington where there is ample opportunity to enjoy nature. When he’s not busy tending to toddlers, Jacob is working to foster dialog around conservation through his photography and writing.

About Trevor Hubbs

I grew up running hounds on coyotes and raccoons, spent a fair amount of time public land waterfowl hunting, and have hunted upland birds behind my setters across the midwest.

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