Florida is home to more than 1.5 million veterans and 21 military bases, and we are one of the most veteran-friendly states in the nation. Recent terrorist attacks around the world serve as a poignant reminder of just how much our military servicemen and women sacrifice for our safety and freedom. While there truly is not enough that we can do to show our gratitude, we should do everything we possibly can to thank our active military members and veterans for their service to our country.
I recently opened a first-of-its-kind camp dedicated to providing disabled veterans with outdoor experiences at no cost. The camp is part of “Operation Outdoor Freedom,” a program we launched in 2011 to provide wounded veterans with hunting, fishing and canoeing activities. To date, more than 1,400 veterans have participated. These experiences are enriched by volunteers and supporters from around the state.
Camp Prairie consists of a fully equipped campground with sleeping quarters, a screened kitchen, pavilion, dining area and restroom facility. The serene camp is located in Lake Wales Ridge State Forest under a canopy of oaks draped with Spanish moss and overlooking the southern shore of Lake Kissimmee. Wild turkeys forage for food along the outskirts of the camp, and the remote location offers peace and solitude.
What started as a way to say thank you has become a form of therapy for our veterans. Therapy occurs in nature. All of us who spend time outdoors have a notion of that, but these veterans know it in a profound way.
While the veterans enjoy Florida’s beautiful outdoors with their brothers and sisters in arms, they experience much more than just hunting or fishing. They share their common experiences, share their common frustrations, and share tips and ideas on ways they’ve dealt with challenges in their recovery and rehabilitation. The therapeutic value of “Operation Outdoor Freedom” hunts and fishing trips takes place at the top of a tree stand, on the bow of a boat and sitting around a campfire at the end of the day.
“Operation Outdoor Freedom” is a special way of connecting our natural resources that we’re blessed to have in our state with our most precious natural resource, which are the men and women who are willing to put their lives on the line for the rest of us.