Serving in disaster, grief and community

Published 4:21 pm Monday, October 22, 2018

Whether it’s been veterans returning from overseas or families devastated by a natural disaster, the volunteers of The Fallen Outdoors have provided aid in Chesapeake and across Hampton Roads, Virginia and the rest of the United States.

The nonprofit is run by active duty and veteran service volunteers to assist men and women in their transitions home and help ease their burdens stateside. To that end, they arrange for outdoor recreational experience like hunting and fishing at no cost to those that have served.

TFO pro staffer Teri Stanley volunteers with her fiancé David Mills, a Navy Senior Chief who will reach 24 years of service in November. She said that seeing a veteran relaxed and at ease during one of these excursions is worth more than any paycheck.

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“To see a veteran fishing for the first time in years and to see the smile on their face because they are ecstatic…it could be the best day they have had in a long time,” Stanley said. “Positive impacts go far.”

Those impacts are felt nationwide, as TFO services all 50 states with about 45 active teams of volunteers providing these outdoor trips, according to Mills, who is the assistant team lead for Virginia’s roster of more than 20 volunteers.

“Our organization also provides a network for veterans, connecting them with other like-minded people across the U.S. searching for that next hunting opportunity, or just someone to chat with about previous deployment stuff, or even to let some stuff off their chest,” Mills said.

That support extends to their families as well, including those in mourning. Stanley, Mills and other Virginia volunteers organized a co-ed memorial softball tournament on Aug. 25 at Western Branch Park. It was a day filled with raffle prizes, delicious grilled food and children tossing water balloons.

The tournament was in memory of Marine Sgt. Michael Andrew Tooley, who was the victim of a hit-and-run in North Carolina in July 2016, according to a report by Marine Corps Times. He died at the age of 28.

Tooley’s family was at the park that day to throw the first pitch. They also received endless condolences from the other families, according to Stanley.

“To me, the tournament was a great way to show thanks to the family of Michael Tooley for the sacrifices he made as a Marine,” Stanley wrote, adding that it also showed that his life lives on in their memories. “His family was so grateful for the experience and was even able to meet a soldier that served down range with (Tooley).”

More recently, TFO volunteers have been traveling back and forth from the North Carolina communities that are still reeling from Hurricane Florence.

The East Coast community of TFO chapters have been working together since Florence made landfall in mid-September to collect as many supply donations as possible to personally deliver to the residents. According to Mills, the communities of Suffolk, Stafford, Windsor and Gloucester County recently pulled together to donate about a pallet of water and a trailer full of supplies.

The volunteers have also collected more than $1,140 in donations to go with the toiletries, water, clothing and numerous non-perishable foodstuffs.

“We are so thankful for the outpouring support of the community of Suffolk and the surrounding cities,” Stanley said. “Without all of these people with their big hearts and donations, this supply run wouldn’t be possible. There are so many nice people that really do care, and if one person has faith, it gives others a reason to have faith.”

Mills and others had been making trips to affected communities since the flood waters first raged. He described navigating roads that were seemingly impassable from debris and high water. The volunteers distributed food and water, cut down trees and filled residents’ generators with gasoline.

Mills had another trailer filled with supplies on Oct. 3 that he expected to have on the road by the end of that week.

“I will personally be taking it to Jacksonville, N.C. in (the) morning, delivering it to a church in a community near Piney Green where I met and helped many families on my last visit,” he wrote.

He helped start up the Virginia TFO team a few years ago with just eight volunteers. They ended up taking more than 30 veterans on more than 20 trips, he wrote, and he couldn’t stress enough how important it was for him to help provide this service.

“When a service member gets out of the military, you’re a different person,” Mills wrote, “You lose your daily face-to-face interaction with your shipmates, your battle buddies. You can find yourself lost without that network, without those people to talk to daily.

“The Fallen Outdoors is a way for veterans to rebuild that network, that camaraderie so you still have that feeling of acceptance.”