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Missouri nonprofit hosts outdoor adventures for veterans

On a fall day in 2018, Eduardo Boom came close to making himself one of 22.

The former U.S. Army helicopter door gunner was ready to end his life.

Boom, 34, said he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder as well as a host of physical disabilities stemming from his involvement in the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

He was in a helicopter that crash-landed, as well as a truck that flipped, causing injuries to his knees and back. Upon returning to civilian life, Boom said he often felt “belittled” by perhaps well-intended “special treatment.”

The general return from the military was difficult, he told the Joplin Globe , and he also carried physical and mental scars.

In the fall of 2018, Boom said he was making plans to kill himself, until he received a phone call from an impassioned veterans’ advocate.

Scotty Hettinger, of Webb City, calls himself an “Army brat.” A retired school teacher, he was never in the military, but his father’s service has inspired him to do what he can to help U.S. veterans across the country, especially those dealing with mental and physical ailments in the aftermath of their service. A feeling he described as “a tug” persisted as he pondered ways to get involved.

“I knew that I needed to do something,” Hettinger said. “Why was I holding back? What was keeping me from doing what I was being called to do?”

In November 2017, he founded Charlie 22 Outdoors, a nonprofit organization that hosts fishing and hunting expeditions for veterans for free. One of its most recent events was a deer hunt in Jasper County in November. Another event is planned this spring for Roaring River State Park.

Charlie 22’s name is a nod not only to Hettinger’s father’s company — Charlie, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Brigade — but also to the reported average of 22 American military veterans who die by suicide each day. Studies by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in recent years have varied in finding between 20 and 22 average veteran suicides a day.

Boom was nearly one of them.

“I just gave up,” he said. “And Scott reached out to me and was like, ‘Look, I already booked you. One of those guys you know, Tim (Moore), is going to come get you and you’re coming out to shoot some deer.'”

“I have to admit, I was a little skeptical on the association at first,” Boom said. “You know, talking with Scott, he seemed like a down-to-Earth guy, swell. I was going through my own stuff, facing my own demons at the time. I know one of the vice presidents of the company very well, and he kept trying to get me on a hunt, telling me it’s going to be good for my soul, going to get me where I need to be spiritually and mentally.”

Boom, of Knoxville, Tennessee, begrudgingly agreed to go on the November deer hunt. He says now that it saved his life. Seeing how badly Hettinger and Charlie 22 wanted to help veterans — especially given that much of Hettinger’s body is paralyzed from a car accident nearly 30 years ago — inspired him.

“We get to the church where we’re meeting the first day and Scott meets us and I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “It took me a while to accept it. A quadriplegic, and not doubting him, but I was like, ‘Here I am complaining about myself, about to take my own life, and this guy, not even a veteran, is doing this to make sure we get better. What the hell is my problem?’ So from that date forward, I put a new face on. I tried to enjoy myself.”

Hettinger said the idea for Charlie 22 came from a belief that being outdoors, particularly with people who have shared traumatic life experiences, can be therapeutic, or, at the very least, relaxing.

“(We’re) using the outdoors as the tool to get us together,” he said. “There’s a lot of healing that takes place out in a blind, or fishing or whatever it is you’re doing. There’s just so much peace in the outdoors and I wholeheartedly believe that, there’s a lot of healing that takes place out there.”

Moore, the veteran who brought Boom to last year’s deer hunt, said he has witnessed that healing take place firsthand. He said he isn’t a disabled veteran and attended the hunt mostly to assist other veterans who may have needed help or someone to talk to.

“A lot of these vets, they’re dealing with issues, and, in many cases, they feel like they’re dealing with it on their own,” he said. “Whether we’re talking PTSD or general depression, or in some cases, dealing with physical either disabilities or wounds, and so, I think there’s just a general loneliness and out-on-their-own (feeling). And it’s a very difficult situation for many of them to ask for help, but if brothers come along and kind of put their arms around them and care on them, I think that’s what they really need and that’s what this organization does.”

Charlie 22 has already hosted one event this year — Operation Marsh Madness — a waterfowl, pheasant and Chukar hunt in January, and plans two more before this summer. The group will hold a turkey hunt in April, followed by Operation Roaring River in late May. This is the first year for the fishing trip.

Planned for May 20-23, Operation Roaring River will be an all-expense paid fishing trip to the state park south of Cassville for as many as 40 veterans.

Hettinger said the park and the Missouri Department of Conservation, which manages the trout hatchery at the spring, are helping make the event possible. They are providing lodging free of charge at Camp Smokey, waiving fees and license requirements for the veterans and even closing one of the three fishing zones to the public for parts of each day to give the attendees the best fishing experience possible. Area churches have volunteered to fix meals for the group throughout its trip to help eliminate any costs to the veterans.

“I’m not surprised anymore because it happens so often now, people want to be involved,” Hettinger said. “I think a big part of it, honestly, is it’s local and they see where the money is going to go. And when they hear that no one is getting paid to do this, that really resonates with people, they understand the money is not going to pay somebody’s salary, it’s going toward what they want to accomplish.”