Anglers can now feel right at home on their seasoned Blackwater fishing trips
Hunters can now get the full experience of befriending the fellow hunters that Operation Freedom Outdoors was intended to bring to wounded warriors now that Blackwater River State Forest has reconfigured the dorms to be more inclusive.
Operation Freedom Outdoors, an organization supported by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and led locally by the Florida Forest Service, provides hunting trips for injured or disabled veterans. Thanks to a $51,000 grant from the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida, Holt’s Blackwater Forest area can house men and women in the same living quarters.
“Getting women into fishing in particular is a priority at the Foundation, so it was kind of a no-brainer for us (to award the grant),” said Michelle Ashton, FWFF Director of Communications.
Prior to the remodel, there was an open floor plan where all seven of the selected warriors slept, including an open bathroom that “isn’t conducive to privacy,” said Joe Zwerzczewski, a public information officer with the Florida Forest Service.
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“This kind of two-story home style was well received by the veterans, it was kind of a throwback deal,” Zwierzchowski said, standing in the middle of the old dwelling at the camp site. “But at the same time, we’re starting to see more female veterans coming forward for these hunts, and these aren’t exactly mixed circumstances.”
The female applicants who were selected were often housed in a separate building from the men, Zwerczewski said, but it was too “isolating” to keep them separated.
“The men were in (one building) and she would be in an empty building by herself, like one or two beds in this giant room and she’s really isolated,” he said. “In my opinion it takes away from experience, the comrade of everything.”
Instead of a giant open room with bathrooms with hoods covering the entrance, hunters will now enter a building that looks like a house. Each hunter will have individual rooms, including a bed and a small chest to keep their belongings.
The bathrooms, which now have doors, include refurbished amenities such as mirrors and sinks.
While physical independence will be a new hunting option, the new dorms also have a common room to allow hunters to relax in the company of fellow veterans to recharge after their morning hunt.
Updated dorms give all applicants selected for each hunt the opportunity to join together while relaxing, enjoying new amenities, and enjoying the outdoors while hunting.
The new dorms are a great setup, says Aaron Davis, a lone hunter who has stayed in the old and remodeled dorms, but he has no hard feelings about the old dorms.
“The old cabin kind of dates back to my publishing days…but every time I’ve been there I’ve loved it,” said Davis. “It’s a nice place they have now. It’s clean and another great place to hang out.”
Davis medically retired from the Air Force in 2016 as a technical sergeant and completed five hunts with Operation Freedom Outdoors.
How are veterans selected for the outdoor freedom hunt?
Operation Outdoor Freedom’s Blackwater River State Forest District conducts four hunts throughout the year – rifle, bulldozer, bow and arrow, and turkey hunt.
For each search, according to Zwierzchowski, participants are randomly selected from a list of applicants using the FDACS program on their website. The only requirement is that the veteran be a Florida resident and honorably discharged with either a Purple Heart or a 30% service-related disability from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.
For the veterans who attend the program, Zwierzchowski said it has changed many of their lives for the better.
“By going out and coming to events like this, not just ours but all over the state, it really changed their lives, and it changed things for them,” he said. “Just being able to reconnect with the outside, meet new people, like-minded people, and get outside, they said, feels good again.”
Davis said he enjoys the Forest Service workers in Blackwater’s outdoor freedom area and the experience so much that he “throws his hat in the ring” every year in hopes of getting selected.
“I enjoy the crew there and they are great,” said Davis. Most veterans I know don’t want to be treated like rock stars, but that’s the feeling you get when you’re on one of those outdoor freedom chases.
“They make you feel welcome (and) cook really good food,” he added. “There are some woodsmen’s families who come to break bread with us, and it’s a really great time.”
This article originally appeared on the Pensacola News-Journal: Outdoor Veterans Hunt in Blackwater Featuring Shared Residences