Brett Miller, of Sisters, Oregon, founder of the highly successful non–profit, Warfighter Outfitters, recently led a group of wounded veterans on a four day Engagement Mission to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
The veterans, who assembled in Ajo, Arizona, from Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Oregon, and California, were partnered with agents from the US Border Patrol, the National Park Service, and full-time Park Service volunteers, to dismantle smuggling sites, to improve and rehabilitate landmark sites, and to learn first-hand the hard realities of daily life on the remote southern border.
Miller founded Warfighter Outfitters after being seriously wounded by an IED attack during a 2005 tour in Iraq. He spent the next three years as an in-patient, two more years as an out-patient, has endured 7 surgeries, and continues to recover from a serious traumatic brain injury.
“While I was in the hospital I had a lot of time, staring at ceiling tiles, and I kept thinking about the kinds of things veterans would want to do,” Brett says.
Out of this long and painful healing process, the notion of Warfighter Outfitters was born.
Brett focuses on a single basic idea: the importance of getting wounded, and in many cases desperately struggling, veterans out of their houses and onto the land, hunting, fishing, or participating in “engagement missions” in places such as Yellowstone National Park, where recovering veterans with Warfighter Outfitters have helped repair trails and build corrals, or at Organ Pipe, dismantling sites, repairing damaged structures, and participating in surveillance operations.
Brett cites the disturbing fact that 22 veterans a day are committing suicide as a driving force behind these missions.
“If I can get them out of their house, and out hunting or fishing, they can find some relevance,” Miller says. “Particularly in a place like this, which is a tactical environment, something they understand.”
Last year, Warfighter Outfitters served over 400 veterans, and Brett himself spent 211 days on the water guiding his fellow wounded veterans on rivers throughout the western United States, in addition to hunting trips and the engagement missions in National Parks.
For the engagement missions, Warfighter Outfitters is supported by Arch Ventures, a venture capital firm based in Chicago that is deeply involved and committed to wounded veteran programs.
“What Brett is doing is incredibly important to these guys,” says Stacey Pinsoneault, of Arch Ventures, “and we are here to fully support his efforts.”
A member of the Arch support crew, Pinsoneault, who lives in Chicago, was joined by CFO Mark McDonnell, as well as Alice Siebecker, a retired senior National Park Law Enforcement officer, who flew in from Montana.
And they weren’t there for window dressing. In addition to arranging vehicles, meals, and coordinating schedules, all three volunteers joined Warfighter Outfitters’ veterans in the hard work under a blazing Sonoran sun.
The Organ Pipe engagement mission is now in its third year, and is maturing into a working partnership between Warfighter Outfitters and the undermanned government agencies tasked with enforcing the law and preserving the monument’s natural and historical sites.
“This is my second year coming,” said James Fries, an army veteran who was shot in the face in Somalia. “I really enjoy it. I like being with the guys, and doing something important. It just feels good. You get to see things nobody else does.”
This year’s trip included dismantling and cleaning up smuggling camps and lay-up hides within yards of the dilapidated pedestrian fences and vehicle barriers on the border. The veterans collected hundreds of pounds of detritus left behind by smugglers, and the mission was important not just for the preservation of the lands, but for the overall tactical picture.
A heavily armed Park Service law enforcement officer, who was providing overwatch as the veterans worked, said: “This is really important to us. By getting this cleaned up we can see how the cartels are changing their tactics, what new routes they are going to use.”
A second project in the National Monument saw the veterans clearing brush from an overgrown corral. A mile and a half hike from the Alamo Canyon Campground site, on the edge of a dry wash in the shadow of the Ajo range, an old corral and a primitive well are remnants of the Gray Ranch, a desert cattle operation that occupied the area for decades.
Veterans, at the behest of a Park Service archaeologist, cleared brush from the corral, and then set to work redigging the old well, which had been completely filled in as the result of a 2012 flash flood that tore through the wash.
In addition to these activities, the veterans were given a VIP tour of the Border Patrol’s Ajo Station, including a very rare glimpse of the Tactical Operations Center, where agents monitor a highly sophisticated radar and optical network, and coordinate missions on a 24 hour basis.
On their final day in the desert, the veterans were taken out to a remote area by a heavily armed contingent of Park Service officers, spending time at an observation post actively looking for smugglers with high-powered spotting scopes and FLIR technology.
The wounded veterans were also hosted and honored by the Ajo, Arizona, Elks Club, with family style appreciation dinner.
Brett calls these “Engagement Missions,” because wounded veterans are actively engaging with each other, and with outside entities who want, and need, their help, reviving a sense of brotherhood that many of them desperately need.
Ryan Lantta, an army veteran from Fresno, California, who was shot six times in the chest near Ramadi, Iraq, surviving only because of his body armor, and who nevertheless had most of his ribs broken and a lung collapsed by the blunt trauma, said: “I love this. I love being around the guys. It doesn’t matter where we come from, or even if we know each other. We speak the same language. It’s like we are in the same squad.”
Says Brett: “The hunting and the fishing, the engagement trips, they are the only thing I have found that can possibly come close to duplicating the esprit de corps and camaraderie of the brotherhood we left behind.”
Hours after they had started digging out the old Gray Ranch well in the relentless heat and sunlight, eight feet lower than they had started, the veterans struck water. Taking five minute turns down in the well, shoveling rock and sand, hauling it out one bucket a time, always guarded by a Park Service law enforcement officer who kept his eyes on the towering cliffs above, they had done it.
A park ranger who was supervising the cleanup had said they would never find water.
The veterans celebrated and laughed, good-naturedly mocked the ranger, then posed for pictures. Mike Pence, from Creswell, Oregon, hit by an RPG in Iraq and severely wounded, yelled loudly up into the Ajo Range, where the cartel scouts were watching: “You’re Welcome!”
And when the laughter died down the veterans stretched out and rested their aching backs in the shade of a giant palo verde. It was quiet then, the quiet of physical fatigue and deep contemplation, the quiet of a remote desert canyon.
And down in the well, the water, cold and brackish, kept soundlessly seeping upward through the sand.
This post originally appeared in The Nugget Newspaper, March 22, 2016