Armed Forces Initiative: End of Year Review
by Trevor Hubbs
In June of 2020 in the midst of a global pandemic, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers set forth to create the Armed Forces Initiative, built to develop and support the growing number of veteran and active service members in the United States and Canada under BHA as well as attract new like-minded individuals to our cause. In our first year we have exceeded everyone's expectations but our own. Here’s how.
My name is Trevor Hubbs. Born at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers in southern Illinois, I currently live in cheesehead country, Wisconsin. I spent eight years in the U.S. Army as an Airborne infantryman. The attitude we have in the Army Airborne community that aligns with our efforts goes something like this:
“I cannot control geopolitics or what country we drop into; I cannot control the weather or climate we will be asked to fight in, I cannot even control who is driving the plane, but I can control what happens when my paratroopers and I hit the ground.”
When Army paratroopers land in the middle of the night a wonderful thing happens. Small groups of heavily armed young troops or LGOPs (little groups of paratroopers), who may have never met each other before, immediately come together as a team to accomplish the mission at hand.
This is a great metaphor for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Armed Forces Initiative’s first year working toward the new mission. We cannot control that there is a pandemic limiting safety, travel and severely impacting our operational effectiveness. When our leader, BHA AFI Coordinator Morgan Mason, hit the ground a year ago, a wonderful thing happened. Morgan built his own LGOP. Together this group, armed with a shared vision, leadership experience, a just cause, and a tremendous amount of care, set about to accomplish the mission of standing up BHA’s Armed Forces Initiative.
Morgan immediately set forth to recruit leadership for three national advisory board positions and began delegating tasks. Andy Ruszkiewicz was the first volunteer to reach out to help and has become the driving force behind the AFI’s Active Duty Pillar. This pillar directly supports every military installation club, with the objective of lowering the barrier of entry to hunt and fish on or around military installations for military members who move every three years.
Ryan Burkert ran point for the AFI’s Veteran Pillar. Ryan has developed three tiers of veteran camps that address North American priority landscapes, leadership training camps and state level AFI camps. One of the additional main lines of efforts in the Veteran Pillar includes a dynamic leadership pipeline that helps put veterans into leadership opportunities.
A Legislation Pillar rounds out the AFI program. Tony Blando, a retired Army lieutenant colonel with a decade’s experience as a U.S. senator’s chief of staff, manages our legislative arm. Tony keeps his eyes on Washington and legislation like the Accelerating Veterans Recovery Outdoors Act, which requires the secretary of the Veteran’s Administration to study how to utilize public land and water usage for veterans as part of their post-duty recovery process.
In Canada, Tirel Gowens volunteered his time to stand up the AFI programming in Canada. He is a veteran and an Alberta Chapter Board member. Tirel models the AFI program and adjusts the format to best fit Canadian programming efforts on behalf of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.
Here’s some more information on each of the AFI’s three pillars:
Active Duty Pillar
Our work in the active duty sector seeks to create officially sanctioned installation clubs in a similar fashion to the Collegiate Club model across North America. We have Armed Forces Initiative clubs on nine military installations across all of the military services from Fort Bragg, NC west to Camp Pendleton, CA and north up to Fort Wainwright, AK. These installation clubs are critical to lowering the barrier of entry to hunt and fish on millions of acres of federal public lands thanks to the Sikes Act. A major effort of the active duty effort is to encourage the retention, reactivation and recruitment of hunters and anglers, and in its inaugural year has ran over six clinics and mentorship events bringing in nearly 100 new hunters and anglers.
These installation clubs also focus on conservation efforts. In the first year packed out over 200 bags of trash over nearly dozen public land cleanup events. These clubs are also in preparation for wildlife guzzler replacements and native upland habitat restoration on military installations. The active duty pillar ultimately enables service members stationed with a new unit, in a new state, who, without the help of a local BHA AFI club, would fall out of hunting or angling forever.
The AFI team in Canada has reached out to Canadian Forces Base, Edmonton Garrison, with hopes to establish an installation club. Through chapter networking, the AFI team has also recruited a member of interest from the British Columbia chapter who is currently serving in the Canadian Air Force to stand up efforts.
In our first year, AFI leaders accomplished what was initially estimated to take up to three years to complete: We hosted more than 30 veterans at our dual skills camps for mule deer and Merriam’s turkeys with a 90.5 percent success rate. Each veteran is leaving these camps well-equipped to return to his or her home state and establish new AFI efforts within the state chapter. Our momentum is building.
Our Fort Bragg AFI club is hosting three skills camps in North Carolina. These camps will cover everything from reading Eastern trout streams to chasing whitetails in the Appalachian Mountains. In November, the Montana AFI club is hosting a mule deer camp in Eastern Montana with Ryan Burkert and the AFI leadership team. This summer, the chapter is holding a marksmanship camp and fly fishing camp in Montana. We are lucky to have fly fishing guide and Army veteran Kyle Wheeler as well as Marine Corps Scout Sniper Creighton Greene to volunteer their skillsets at these camps.
Last but not least is my home state, Wisconsin, where four camps are locked and loaded for the rest of 2021. A late summer muskie and walleye trip with Southern Pines Outfitters, a mid-October cast and blast for ruffed grouse and Wisconsin brook trout, a late season muzzleloader whitetail hunt and the AFI’s first ever trapping camp – targeting beaver, mink, raccoons and muskrat – in the original Northwest territory.
The AFI team in Canada is primarily composed of veterans. As the pandemic restrictions slacken the veterans of AFI Canada will be informally meeting for the Hike to Hunt challenge representing BHA Team Canada. The application of skills camps is being discussed and plans are in the works for later this year.
Finally, as AFI advocate and Kentucky State board member Col. Mike Abell likes to remind us:
“Y’all are out here doing the Lord’s work helping these veterans, but at the end of the day it don’t mean shit if they can’t help themselves and BHA. We need to be out here making leaders who love and will fight for our public lands.”
The reply to Col. Mike’s statement is our Legislation Pillar. To BHA members, the remarkable ability of our wild public lands to create inner peace is no secret. Each one of us on the AFI’s leadership team can tell a personal story of how the wild parts of this country helped us come home. Tony Blando is working harder than a mule on establishing the Interagency Task Force on Outdoor Recreation for Veterans, which was passed by lawmakers unanimously and enacted into law in 2020 under the Veterans COMPACT Act (PL 116-214). This bill is a bipartisan win. It requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to establish a task force to report on and make recommendations regarding the use of public lands or other outdoor spaces for medical treatment and therapy for veterans.
The bill calls for the chairpersons of the committee to submit a report to Congress on the task force’s preliminary findings no later than six months after the task force is established. Unfortunately, the state of emergency declared around COVID-19, the implementation of the task force was put on hold, It will take BHA members together reminding their elected officials of the value of this bill and of their responsibility to act upon it.
Our team up north is making waves too. Recently AFI Canada drafted a letter to the Alberta Minister of Environment and Parks requesting license incentives for active and veteran members of the Canadian Armed Forces. This advocation follows the precedent set by other provincial governments adopting similar programs as a token of appreciation for the military community. Some of such incentives include free fishing licenses and bear hunting licenses. The letter template was also forwarded to the newly established Liaison and BC board member Steve Nikirk with plans to submit a similar request to the BC ministry.
Our First Year in the Books
That’s the end of our first year, showing what we are capable of in a difficult time and starting an initiative that is still growing. Stay tuned to see what our team will do in 2021 and 2022.