As many people know, the lives of Americans entrusted with keeping us safe is challenging on so many levels. The valor and courage needed to fight enemies at home and abroad bring about pressures and responsibilities most of us in civilian life will never encounter. The scars inflicted, both physical and mental, come with the territory, and often stack up like firewood as each warrior selflessly gives their absolute time and every attention.
We so often hear about the physical damage and sacrifice, and over time, especially during this turbulent period, we become almost desensitized when watching the news and reading about those who have paid the ultimate price.
But then there are the other burdens, which are an entirely different set of unique challenges that, to some degree, we all face as humans. For servicemen and women, these are amplified to an unthinkable degree. They pay the toll of being under intense pressure, being responsible for so many lives, amid so much chaos, balanced around serving as wives, husbands, fathers, and mothers. There is so much time away from home, with bills to pay, families that need them, and a country that is absolutely counting on them.
In all of this, we, as civilians, can step in and simply give back. Thankfully, many do.
On Veteran’s Week 2016, such an opportunity was presented, and acted upon by Oregon ranch owner Jim Bisenius, along with his staff, at The Antone Ranch, a 37,000-acre, privately-owned, sportsman’s paradise, between Mitchell and John Day, in Eastern Oregon. In short, it’s the most spectacular private ranch in the northwest, and the perfect stage for opportunities such as this.
Bisenius, along with his hunting guide Brandon Davis, had connected with the Purple Heart Outdoors Tour, and out of that connection came a friendship, partnership, and a once-in-a-lifetime hunting and fishing trip which was meant to simply honor active-duty Special Operations servicemen from different branches of the United States military.
“I’ve been so incredibly blessed in my life, and it’s incredibly rewarding to have the ability to bless some of the most deserving among us,” said Bisenius, who was on hand and personally involved in the various hunts and fishing trips. “These guys just need to understand how much we appreciate them, and if I can use my ranch to create an escape from their daily pressures, and give them life-long memories, then I wanted to seize the opportunity. Ironically, me and my staff, and several good friends, got as much out of it as these men. This was an absolute honor.”
The Purple Heart Outdoors Tour was founded in 2007 by Dan Hammack, a retired lieutenant colonel, and former U.S. Army Green Beret. Hammack’s mission was to simply honor combat-wounded soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen with a series of hunts and outdoor adventures, in various sites across the country. Each year the organization holds a diverse series of outdoor events, and partners with civilians, like Bisenius, who are both patriotic and generous with their time, finances, and property.
Paul Johnsen, a retired New York City firefighter, now works with the Purple Heart Outdoors Tour. Johnsen, who served with FDNY’s Squad Company 1 in Brooklyn, was a responder on 9/11, and was in lower Manhattan when the second tower fell. Johnsen’s Squad 1 lost 12 of the 343 total New York firefighters who sacrificed their lives on that horrible day. Johnsen has his own stories to tell, obviously, but after meeting Hammack at an NRA convention in Phoenix nine years ago, dove headfirst into the Purple Heart Outdoors Tour.
“I got involved, really, through mutual friends,” said Johnsen. “I had an old friend who was a former Navy frogman, and introduced me to Dan (Hammack). We became dedicated to taking active-duty special operation units from the military out on different hunts, and other outdoor activities.”
The Purple Heart Outdoors Tour is specific, in that it works with a community of servicemen involving Army Rangers, Green Berets, Navy Seals, and members of MARSOC (Marine Corps Special Forces).
This particular outdoor adventure, at Antone Ranch, was attended by four elite Special Operations servicemen. Because of their status as “active-duty” their names are being withheld (and faces blurred out in the photos). None of them had ever been to the northwest, and all have spent multiple tours overseas. They openly shared stories of combat, injuries sustained, daily struggles with life, and the incredible rewards of serving something greater than themselves.
“This was an absolutely amazing time, and I can’t thank Mr. Bisenius and his staff enough for their generosity and the respect shown to us,” said one soldier, a Marine. “There are such amazing stories of valor, and it’s a privilege to share those. But, at times, the stories that often get the attention can be negative, in regards to our service and our various missions and purpose. Then, we get to meet and spend time with salt-of-the-earth people like these folks, who truly appreciate us, and it completely fills our cups.”
Davis, Antone Ranch’s head guide, played a significant role in coordinating and executing this event.
“My whole thing with this hunt, is it’s an opportunity to give back to active-duty military guys, and show the appreciation America has for them and what they’re doing for us,” said Davis. “I love watching the decompression, from when they first arrive and are stressed and uptight, and then watch the transformation of each one of these guys. How they begin to let down, open up to you, and then hearing from them about what this truly means to them. It’s a very neat deal, and I was honored to be able to be a part of this.”
As was the hope, the hunting and fishing trip to Oregon not only turned into a file folder full of memories, but also created lasting relationships. The Purple Heart Outdoors Tour purposefully mixes members from the United States Special Operations command, and disabled personnel injured in combat. A vital side effect, thanks to the P.H.O.T., are relationships built with civilians, specifically charitable ranch owners, like Bisenius, and his staff.
“These elite soldiers have lived lives and have had experiences that blew me away to hear about,” said Bisenius. “We all exchanged stories, along with contact information, and plan to all keep in touch. It was so rewarding for me, as a ranch owner, to be able to share the abundance that I have, that I’ve been blessed with, to pour out on to these deserving men. I strongly encourage other ranch owners to get involved with groups like The Purple Heart Outdoors Tour, and open their lives, homes, and land with them to truly give back and create experiences like this.”
Johnsen, who not only helps organize, but attends many of the hunts, carries himself with the same humble attitude as the men he’s serving, loved what this experience in Oregon offered.
“The impact for the guys at Antone Ranch… you just really have to see it,” said Johnsen. “It’s hard to put into words. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for these guys. They way they were treated by Jim (Bisenius), and the things they were offered, it was incredible. They don’t feel like they’re doing anything special to deserve this, but it’s truly life changing for the guys. Jim and his staff made them feel so comfortable, where they could really open up and be themselves, and that’s a big thing. To truly get away, and experience this kind of generosity in an absolutely incredible setting on this Oregon ranch was something we’ll always remember.”
The days at Antone Ranch were jam packed with activity, and always started before the sun came up. Cow and bull elk were harvested, there was fly fishing, chucker hunting, shooting sports, exploring, and tremendous fellowship at meal times. There were very serious times, deep talks, emotional unpacking, and a lot of laughs. It’s cliché to use the term “unplugged,” but that’s exactly what was accomplished, for guys who badly need an outlet back home to relax, mix with other servicemen, and get a taste of normal life, which in this case included a fantastic adventure, before returning to duty.
“It’s so encouraging, getting to be around kind people who truly appreciate the sacrifice these guys make on a daily basis,” said Johnsen, following the trip. “These guys aren’t there for recognition, but we also know people want to thank them. The Purple Heart Outdoors Tour accomplishes both things. It’s an honor for all of us.”
The Antone Ranch is located about 22 miles east of Mitchell, and 60 miles south of Fossil, along highway 26. As early as 1862, gold miners flooded the areas within Antone, which was once a town, and mining was a major industry in the area for nearly three-quarters of a century. Many of the original settlers are buried in the area, with most having been laid to rest in Spanish Gulch Cemetery. Antone is also home to Camp Watson, a former military headquarters in charge of protecting miners and settlers. Until the 1930s, the dirt road through The Antone Ranch, was main road from Mitchell to Dayville and John Day. It’s an area dripping with NW history, which is well respected by the current owners of the ranch. The land is now home to cattle, horses, agriculture, abandoned gold mines, many old structures and cabins, scores of species of wildlife, and trophy trout.
To learn more about The Purple Heart Outdoors Tour, or to become a sponsor, visit their website at purpleheartoutdoors.com.