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Hunting and healing: Bemidji man’s project to help veterans hunt has grown steadily through the years

Submitted Photo Brian Ophus, left, the founder of Wounded Warrior Guide Service, helped veteran Jack Zimmerman find some success hunting sea ducks last January in Boston.

BEMIDJI — An Afghanistan veteran, badly injured during his deployment, wanted so badly to go hunting once again, but his health was making that seemingly impossible.

“His story is quite amazing,” said Brian Ophus of Bemidji, whose Wounded Warrior Guide Service is fulfilling the vet’s request. “He was in the middle of a firefight in Afghanistan and had a heart attack. They flew him from where he was at to an Air Force base, Bagram, in Afghanistan, where they got mortared.”

The soldier was injured and now is recovering in a Georgia Veteran’s Administration hospital.

“He’s been wanting to go waterfowling again but no organization will take him out because of his heart condition,” Ophus said.

But the Wounded Warrior Guide Service, a nonprofit Ophus started several years ago to take injured soldiers on hunting excursions, will do just that, providing the necessary equipment, ammunition and gear.

“When I got back, for me, I never found any use for sitting in a room with somebody, talking to someone about my problems,” said Ophus, who spent nearly two years on deployment to Iraq in 2005-2007. “So me and a group of my buddies, we would go out hunting and that was our quote-unquote therapy sessions.”

Through hunting, particularly waterfowl hunting, groups of veterans go out together, walking, talking and bonding over their shared experiences and emotions.

“The thing about the military is it’s a pretty big brotherhood, sisterhood type of deal,” Ophus said. “Half the guys we get together when we’re doing hunts, they don’t know each other, but by the end, they’re best friends because it’s that kind of camaraderie out there.”

There are other organizations that similarly provide such experiences to Purple Heart recipients, but Ophus said Wounded Warrior Guide Service reaches to those injured in a variety of ways, from post-traumatic stress to brain and back injuries.

It also doesn’t take no for an answer, as illustrated by the vet recovering in Georgia, whose wife also will be accompanying him on the trip because she knows how to work the automated external defibrillator.

“He’s expressed that he will sign any waiver,” Ophus said. “His lawyer knows that if he happens to have a heart attack on any hunt, that he died a happy guy.”

‘It’s not a job’

Ophus was a member of the Minnesota National Guard’s A Company, 2nd Combined Arms Battalion 136th Infantry, which spent 16 months in Iraq after a six-month training deployment.

The Bemidji detachment didn’t suffer any casualties but several soldiers were hurt, some extensively.

One was their medic, whose vehicle struck an improvised explosive device. The explosion hurt his legs and he was eventually transferred to and from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to the VA hospital in Minneapolis.

He was bored, so his buddies developed a plan to offer a brief respite, taking him out of the hospital for a bit to go muzzle-loading for deer. “We didn’t kill anything, but he thought it was awesome and he wanted us to bring out other guys,” Ophus said.

An idea formed.

But while Ophus and his buddies began taking veterans out on hunts, there was no official organization until 2009, when he tried to get a booth at the Minnesota Game Fair in Anoka.

Ophus wanted a presence there to recruit veterans, but after meeting with the organizer for the Game Fair, he was offered a free booth and some giveaways if he would first establish an official nonprofit organization.

He linked up with Jay Pederson, a local attorney with Fuller, Wallner, Cayko, Pederson & Huseby, a firm that often has provided pro bono work for local nonprofits.

“Even when they were just getting it off the ground, I thought it was a tremendous idea,” Pederson said. “Brian does a great, great job. It’s a great organization.”

Once officially registered as a nonprofit, Ophus went down the Game Fair for two full weekends.

“Everything escalated from there,” Ophus said. “I figured there would be a lot of support for this stuff, but nothing like that. Everything just really came together.”

Wounded Warrior Guide Service expanded exponentially, from first taking out about 20 vets that first fall to 100 the following year. Today, it boasts three chapters — the one here in Minnesota and additional branches in North Dakota and Wisconsin — and has big dreams for the future.

The nonprofit has kicked off its largest campaign as it seeks land and funds to establish a campus constructed to specifically fit disabled vets’ needs. It would boast a lodge, handicapped-accessible hunting trails and blinds, a trap range and more.

“We run a lot of trips now, but we’d like to have a place where we can bring people in, where they can stay one, two or three nights and do a lot of the hunting stuff there, in one area,” Ophus said. “Finding access for wheelchairs (on hunting trips), we can do it, but it ends up being pretty hard.”

Ophus’ role within the Wounded Warrior Guide Service is changing a bit as he focuses on the campaign. He is stepping away from the running the day-to-day operations to focus on grant-writing.

“As long as I’m helping vets, it doesn’t matter to me (what specifically I’m doing),” Ophus said.

His 9-to-5 job is with the state of Minnesota helping veterans find employment.

“It’s not really a job, either one of them,” he said of his work. “It’s something I have a passion for. Because of my service, I really became a very committed person to the service aspect, to giving back as much as I could for our veterans.”

He didn’t come for a highly military family, though a couple of his uncles served. Ophus himself enlisted in the wake of 9/11.

“I thought about enlisting before that, but due to life events, I just never really did it,” he said. “After 9/11, I just made it a point that was what I was going to do. There were no more excuses.”