Steven James was sitting in his deer hunting stand last fall when he glanced at the message on his mobile phone.
“One of my soldiers became a statistic,’’ said James. The news of the suicide one day before Veteran’s Day did more than startle James. It motivated him.
“I kind of made the effort to really push this through, to make this an organization,’’ said James.
He has since created Veterans In the Outdoors, or VITO. Its sole goal is to get veterans outdoors by hosting them on fishing and hunting adventures, or whatever it is they might enjoy, whether that is canoeing, camping, boating or hiking.
James is partial to hunting and fishing. They have been his passions ever since growing up in the Benson area with a father who introduced him to these worthy pursuits. He grew up fishing the local waters with his dad, every water body from Camp Lake to Lake Minnewaska. “We did not catch much, but (we were) always going out,’’ he laughed.
Same for hunting, as he graduated from carrying a BB gun to shotgun in pursuit of everything from pheasant and waterfowl to whitetails.
All of it was interrupted while he served with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan in 2012. An exploding grenade during action there broke his back, but not his passion for enjoying the outdoors. Some of his favorite outdoor adventures took place less than a two hour drive from Fort Carson, Colorado, where he was based with the 4th Infantry until completing his military service in the fall of 2014.
Whenever they had a free weekend, James said he and friends drove and hiked into the mountains to hunt and fish.
Today he is back taking advantage of the outdoors in western Minnesota. He works as a supervisor at the Jennie-O plant in Montevideo, and lives in the countryside between Montevideo and Granite Falls.
In an informal way, he’s been taking local veterans along on hunting and fishing adventures ever since moving back to the area. It all started by chance, when he met an 87-year-old World War II veteran at the local VFW and the man confided he had not caught a fish in 26 years. “I told him we’re going out,’’ said James.
The five-inch crappie the veteran caught put a smile on his face bigger than the prairie horizon. “I just knew I had to build something off of this,’’ said James.
When that message arrived in the deer stand, James said he realized there was a bigger purpose to his idea than a love for the outdoors. On average, 22 veterans a day commit suicide in this country, according to James.
He doesn’t claim that giving more veterans the chance to get out fishing and hunting will solve everything. But “getting people off the couch” is definitely a step in the right direction, he said.
Being outdoors, fishing or hunting, is mind clearing. And doing so in the company of others is uplifting, noted James. It all helps chase away the negative thoughts that can trouble veterans who have known the stress of war.
James is currently obtaining nonprofit status for VITO, so that donations to it can be tax deductible. He’s been funding all of the informal trips he’s offered veterans on his own. Likewise, he has handled all the financial costs associated with forming an organization and obtaining the nonprofit status.
He’s hoping that individuals, business and organizations will consider donating funds and help to VITO. He’s received support from the Montevideo chapter of Let’s Go Fishing, which is willing to host veterans on boating or fishing trips on its pontoon boat based on Lac qui Parle Lake.
James is open to adventure far and wide. He’s ready to take veterans fishing on local waters, but is also opening to organizing trips to other destinations. He’s also hoping the funds will make it possible to purchase a boat and possibly a vehicle for VITO.
Based on the feedback he’s received so far, James said he is optimistic. The first good sign happened right after he received the disturbing news in his deer stand. “The next day I got my buck,’’ said James.