Unit Colors of the Purple Heart Outdoors Tour.
Apart from all the Sturm und Drang of a Presidential campaign, there is the odd, positive story that walks up and presents itself. This one started with a note from one of our avid Red State Readers, who sent an email of appreciation to our Managing Editor. Richard is a retired U.S. Army Master Sergeant who happened to mention in the emails back and forth that followed, an organization that he supports called “The Purple Heart Outdoors Tour.” So, the next thing you know, I’m driving from my lair on Lake Logan Martin, to Edison, Georgia, just West of Albany.
I pulled into the compound and drove up to the main building. As I walked up to the command post/outdoor kitchen, Dan met me, stuck out his hand and said, “Hi, you must be from Red State.” After some small chit chat, we went off to a side area where Dan turned the information fire hose on me.
The Purple Heart Outdoors Tour (PHOT) is the brainchild of retired Special Forces (Green Beret ) Lieutenant Colonel Dan Hammack and Retired New York City Firefighter (and Navy Vet) Paul Johnson. A little over ten years ago, Hammack and Johnson saw a need and forthrightly acted to fulfill it. Recognizing that there were many programs out there for veterans and wounded Active Duty troops, they formed the Purple Heart Outdoors Tour, an organization that sponsors and runs outdoor hunting expeditions for Active Duty Special Operations Force troops known simply as “Operators.”
Founders: Dan and Paul
Dan told me the story of why such an operation as PHOT was needed and how he got it started. A little over ten years ago, he had been involved in what he terms, “celebrity” hunts, where folks could pay to go hunting with celebrities. During one such, he came up with the idea of running such an event for Active Duty Special Operations troops.
Dan and his eventual partner Paul, understood that these Operators needed a respite from environments of danger and high stress. They needed an environment where both the “cadre” and fellow participants spoke their language and were familiar with the high risk, high-stress environments these warriors face on a daily basis.
Dan and Paul ran their first operation in 2008 with 12 participants. Now PHOT coordinates 9 events annually in ten different locations…and is still adding events to the calendar. Dan told me he gets calls from around the country from individuals and organizations who would like to host an event under his banner, so to speak. Dan doesn’t accept all of these requests.
As he explained, PHOT is an IRS-approved, non-profit 501(c)3 charitable organization that must follow certain rules. He also pointed out that because the organization completely relies on donations, it is extremely cognizant that even the appearance of impropriety can result in donors taking their money, in-kind gifts, and personal participation, elsewhere. So, he makes sure that certain standards are met before lending the PHOT imprimatur to another group or individual.
Part of that “certification” is making sure that event proposals are quality from top to bottom: nice accommodations, good food and most importantly, no cost to the participants. The idea is that participants have a good time while forging bonds with other warriors who speak their language and have their shared history and ethos.
Another interesting aspect of this operation is the donor base which, according to Dan, is growing. These are folks from all walks of life, doctors, lawyers, business owners or executives, all of whom just want to “do something” to help our servicemen. Their support ranges from donating funds, to loaning out facilities and terrain, to providing everything from top to bottom including airfare and catering.
I got to meet one such long time donor, spokesman and staunch promoter of Purple Heart Outdoors Tour, retired actor Michael Talbott, who some of you old farts like me might remember as Detective Stan Switek on the original Miami Vice series. Switek…er Mike and I spoke quite extensively. It would take another ten pages to cover everything he said. What it boils down to is that in his words, “I’m a flag-waver, a patriot.” He went on to say that although he didn’t serve, he is grateful to be a part of an organization such as PHOT, which takes care of the people who protect him. He concluded with, “There are more people like me, who really do love America and the Armed Forces…even in California.” More on that later on.
Back to Dan, as I ask him, “So how well does it work?” Dan shoots back, “Quite well.” He believes that his organization provides much-needed respite for Operators who have been under stress for years, some more than a decade. PHOT gives these Operators a chance to decompress. He didn’t use the term “safe space,” because folks like Dan and I just don’t do that. We might, however, call it a “low threat environment.” Such an environment is free from the judgment of Chain-of Command, friends and yes, even family.
But that’s what “management” thinks. What do the staff and, most importantly, what do the participants believe? What do the participants believe they get out of this? It turns out, quite a bit, as I got a chance to find out. I spoke with several folks there, but four of them gave me some really great insight and detail. In no special order: Master Sergeant Ben, 1st Sergeant Rusty, Sergeant Major Skye, and Sergeant First Class Luke.** Here is what they told me.
—The Operators participating, work in a very high-stress environment with an extremely high OPTEMPO There are more than a few of these guys who have been back to the “box” as many as a dozen times. Having a chance to decompress amongst other warriors who’ve had similar experiences and speak their language is hugely important.
—This is a huge opportunity to network. “Wait a minute!” you might say. “Isn’t ‘networking’ just for business types?” Not really. As big as our Armed Forces are, the smaller part that is the SOF community is still too large for everyone to know everyone else. Events such as the Purple Heart Outdoor Tour provide opportunities to meet counterparts from other services…and as these guys noted, counterparts you will run into on other operations…already having formed a basis in trust in a PHOT event.
—Here is one of the most interesting benefits. PHOT fosters opportunities for civilians to show troops their appreciation over and above the ubiquitous and fast becoming trite, “Thank you for your service.” What’s truly important is that these guys get to meet folks who are truly grateful for what they do and show it by helping sponsors or providing other support for these events. Remember California? The state that allegedly hates everything American?
Our four Operators noted an event out there in liberal land, where the locals of several different towns were lined up in the streets waving flags as they went by on the way to the event site. That’s important to guys who have multiple deployments under their belt, but when they come home, wonder if the American Public appreciates their efforts. Apparently, most do.
Dan led me over to one wall inside the main building on which was hanging an interesting banner. As he tells it, alumni of this program were serving in Afghanistan and had a local fabricate the banner which they, in turn, sent back to Dan. He now calls it the “Unit Colors.” That led me to ask, “So what about the future? You and I are both getting long in the tooth. Who is going to pick up the baton?” Not missing a beat, he talks about the next generation of leadership, leadership that has already “graduated” from “Participant” and become “Volunteer Staff.” “We’ve got plenty of talent in the pipeline,” he declared.
Back to the four participants I interviewed. I asked them for a simple, “wrap it all up” statement. After a bit of back and forth they came up with something simple and powerful: “Purple Heart Outdoors Tour saves lives.” That’s about as good as it gets.
**No last names and limited photo ops for security reasons. After all, these guys are still working for us.
If you’d like to volunteer, donate or provide a venue, here is the website for The Purple Heart Outdoors Tour.