There has been one, and only one, honorary veteran of the United States Armed Forces. In 1996 congress voted to present that title to Bob Hope, in appreciation for the 50 years of service he gave our troops all over the world, entertaining and boosting morale by performing in almost 200 USO shows. Hope brought a little bit of laughter and pleasure into the lives of the people responsible for protecting our freedom far from home, and he did it because he wanted to make a difference.
When told he was being made an honorary veteran, Hope said, "I’ve been given many awards in my lifetime, but to be numbered among the men and women I admire most is the greatest honor I have ever received."
Joe Fox, of Marietta, California, spends his time doing the same thing Bob Hope did. Not on the same scale, and not overseas, and not exactly the same way. But, like Hope, Joe Fox makes a difference. He’s president of the Paralyzed Veterans of America Outdoor Recreation Heritage Fund. Joe gives wounded veterans a chance to enjoy life again, at a time when many of them have decided there is no joy left. He takes them hunting and fishing.
Founded in 2001, the PVA Outdoor Recreation Heritage Fund was endowed with a $1 million government grant made possible, in part, by a couple of retired U.S. Marine officers, Maj. Gen. Randy Grit West, and Lt. Col. Lou Deal. The Fund has raised an additional $350,000, and the interest from the endowment is used to give veterans back a small return on the immense investment they have made in their country.
"These guys think their lives are over," Fox said at a dinner during a Wounded Warriors hunt in Mason, Texas. "They think they’ll do nothing but sit in a room and stare at the walls from now on. We take them out and give them a chance to enjoy life again."
Enjoying life, for someone who loves to hunt and fish, means getting outdoors and experiencing the thrill of feeling a hard tug on a line, or watching a deer step into a clearing through a rifle scope. Veterans who have given arms, legs, eyes, or the use of those assets in battle, often consider that thrill gone forever. One such man, on a black bear hunt in Alaska, told Fox, "You’ve given me my life back."
In a letter written in 1863, Abraham Lincoln wrote, "We never should, and I am sure, never shall, be niggard of gratitude and benefaction to the soldiers who have endured toil, privations, and wounds, that the nation may live." He also said the government has a responsibility "to care for the veteran who has borne the battle, his widow, and his orphan." While the Veteran’s Administration tries to take care of the basic needs of those who have enabled our nation to live, Fox, and others, try to provide more to life than mere survival. And they do it because they care.
Fox travelled to Mason at the request of Col. Steve Toone, U.S. Army, Retired, who helps arrange hunts in the area for the Wounded Warrior Project. The PVA Outdoor Recreation Heritage Fund assists groups such as Wounded Warriors through grants, which help defray the expenses involved in giving our veterans a chance to enjoy the outdoors again.
Also on hand for the Mason hunt were Jake Little and his friend, Brian Beauchamp, who runs the Mid-American chapter of PVA out of Miami, Oklahoma. Brian’s grandfather, Dwight Guilfoil, was a wounded veteran who was decorated in 1960, by then vice president Richard Nixon, as the Handicapped American of the Year. Giving, it seems, runs in the family.
But arranging hunts and taking veterans into the outdoors can sometimes be dangerous. Fox was reminded of this on a hunt in Alaska, when he was charged by a grizzly sow. The bear got within fifteen yards before the boar slapped her and made her turn away. Something like that would be exciting for anyone, but probably more so for Fox. A veteran himself, Fox lost both legs and partial use of his right arm in Vietnam. He had a rifleman with him, but you never know.
We can’t all be Bob Hope. We can’t even all be Joe Fox. But we can still help. Without donations from private citizens, those who are directly involved in giving our wounded veterans a chance to get outdoors again could not do what they do.
And what they do makes more difference than most of us will ever know. Fox says, "What we do is help these guys focus on their abilities, instead of their disabilities." Donating a few bucks doesn’t pay our veterans what we owe them, by a long shot, but it lets them know we appreciate their sacrifices. None of them ever asks for more than that.
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or firstname.lastname@example.org