Ohio Veterans Outdoors brings healing, camaraderie through nature
Life changed for Ron Leach when he returned from Iraq the second time.
Leach served two tours in the U.S. Army – operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom – and he saw things no man should, he said. His experiences made him angry and stressed.
"I was a raving (jerk) when I got home," said Leach, 51, of Marshallville in Wayne County.
One thing he didn't expect to change, though, was his enjoyment of hunting. Leach always considered himself an outdoorsman, and he loved the feeling of being in nature, away from the world for a while.
But hunting, he said, still is a dirty thing.
"The blood-and-guts part kind of got to me and made me remember things I didn't want to," Leach said. "I thought, 'I can’t do this anymore.'"
It wasn't until his wife found Ohio Veterans Outdoors, a volunteer-run organization that promotes wounded veterans' wellness through the outdoors and education, that Leach learned how to cope.
Ohio Veterans Outdoors was founded in June 2016 by Brian Luce, a retired U.S. Air Force pilot who had been injured in a plane crash in Afghanistan in 2010.
Luce said the crash not only left him with physical injuries – a traumatic brain injury, a broken back and broken leg – but he also was dealing with the mental and emotional effects of trauma.
In 2013, Luce went on a whitetail deer hunt in Florida through the Wounded Warrior Project. The weekend was an opportunity for Luce to escape reality for a while and meet other veterans who were seeking the same camaraderie and peace he had been seeking.
Coming home at the end of the trip, Luce said, he snapped back to the real world and kept working through the trauma of the crash.
Luce said he wanted to create a similar space for veterans to connect with the outdoors to help the transition back to civilian life and to learn to cope with whatever struggles they might be experiencing.
What was going to be a small, annual deer hunt grew because of support and donations Luce has received.
Ohio Veterans Outdoors organizes about a dozen events a year. About four to eight veterans participate in each event. It's a group large enough that everyone should be able to find someone they can connect with and small enough that no one gets lost in the mix, Luce said.
The organization has hunting and fishing trips planned for each season.
In the fall, there's a duck hunt and a squirrel hunt. Hunts also are scheduled during both deer-archery and deer-gun seasons. This year's deer-gun season was Nov. 30 through Dec. 6, with a bonus weekend Dec. 19-20.
In the winter, pheasant hunts are held, and in the spring, a turkey hunt is organized. Fishing weekends are planned throughout the spring and summer.
Luce said Ohio Veterans Outdoors even has tried such activities as introduction to scuba diving and hiking trips to make sure something for everyone is offered. In addition, a shooting-sports event was held for those who aren’t interested in hunting but still like to shoot.
In 2020, because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, it has been a little more difficult to get people together for events, Luce said. The annual archery deer-hunting trip, for example, had a few last-minute cancellations because of COVID-19 exposures, he said.
But thanks to the solitary nature of hunting, Luce said, the events have continued with some social-distancing considerations.
But Ohio Veterans Outdoors is so much more than getting the biggest buck or fish, Luce said.
"We focus less on the harvest and focus more on the experience that the vets have," he said. "That they are comfortable, that they feel they can relax, that they can speak their mind and talk to whoever they’re with."
There's something disarming about sitting in a tree stand with someone you've never met before, Luce said. Before long, you're getting to know one another, when you served, and building a bond, he said.
"Brotherhood and sisterhood, that bond doesn’t go away," Leach said. "They’ve gone through what you’re trying to go through by yourself. You think you can get through it alone and you won’t."
Ohio Veterans Outdoors also raises awareness about veteran health issues in Ohio's rural communities. In the U.S., an average of 20 veterans die by suicide daily, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, though some groups estimate that number is higher.
Living in a rural area means fewer mental-health resources are available than in metro areas, Luce said. But that doesn't mean resources aren't available to those in need of help.
"We don’t claim to be a therapy center, but through personal experience and feedback, we know being outdoors and sharing these hunting and fishing experiences is actually very therapeutic," Luce said.
Leach doesn't like to admit it – because he knows the others might give him a hard time – but he said one can feel the love walking around an Ohio Veterans Outdoors event.
"The worst part is when it’s over," he said. "You get so much stress and agony relieved just being with them, it hurts when I leave."
On top of building new friendships, Leach said, he has learned to cope with some of his anger and post-traumatic stress disorder from Ohio Veterans Outdoors.
He remembers one hunting trip a few years ago when another veteran had asked Luce some inconsiderate questions around the campfire. Leach said he would've punched the man in the face if it had been him. But instead, he saw Luce respond with patience and restraint.
"When I see myself in situations where people are jackasses, I remember Brian and how eloquently and maturely he handles people," Leach said. "That was years ago, and I still remember."
It's not easy coming home from war, Leach said. But Ohio Veterans Outdoors – the camaraderie, the campfires, the solitude in nature – has made him feel normal again, if only for a weekend.
"For me, and I hate to say it, ... it keeps a bullet out of my head," Leach said. "It’s easy to think I'm not good for nothing, and at night, the demons come to visit me.
"They really keep a bullet out of your head. Honest to God, they really do."
If you are in suicidal crisis, call 911 or go to an emergency room. Help also is available at Ohio's 24/7 Crisis Text Line by texting 4HOPE to 741741 or by calling the Franklin County Suicide Prevention Hotline at 614-221-5445; the Teen Suicide Prevention Hotline at 614-294-3300; the national Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255/TALK (888-628-9454 for Spanish speakers); or the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255.