LORIDA — The website is huntforvets.com, but the name of the organization, Sportsmen’s Foundation for Military Families, gives more information about what goes on at Danny SantAngelo’s rustic 2,000 acre-ranch northeast of Lorida.
That’s why it wasn’t just Corina and Douglas Whittington sitting at the table, it was also Allison, Alex and Aric Farley.
“I got a hog,” said Allison, 14, and it was her first time to hunt feral pigs. Aric took squirrels and a rabbit, they said as they ate a custom-cooked breakfast in the kitchen, where the log furnishings look hand-hewn.
Sgt. Corina Whittington, who was deployed in Iraq from 2003 to 2005 in administrative support, said her family has never hunted together before, but Allison learned how to sight-in a .270 caliber rifle. Allison and Aric learned how to skin and butcher the hog, which was stored in coolers and will become ham and sausage back home in St. Albans, W.V.
“I was the unlucky one,” said former Chief Petty Officer Douglas Whittington, who destroyed minefields on Navy minesweepers from 1968 to 1987. His T-shirt read, “Fish now work later.”
SantAngelo has been involved with veterans for years. His company, Okeechobee Outfitters, offers professionally guided hunts, and he extends the privilege free to a selected veteran each week.
But five or six years ago, he realized that something was missing. He had been offering stays to the Wounded Warriors Project, and although they enjoyed the bass fishing and the wild boar hunting, they often remarked how much their wives and children would have enjoyed it too.
“The families were always left out,” SantAngelo said. “I put my foot down and quit doing it.”
Instead, he started his own non-profit, and every Tuesday, a military family comes to stay at the ranch. All have served in a combat zone, but some are combat veterans, some aren’t. Sometimes the veterans were wounded, sometimes the veteran is a woman, sometimes there are medical issues, and sometimes the veteran has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and may feel suicidal.
“I’ve gotten all kinds of stories from the veterans coming in,” SantAngelo said. They stay until Thursday, and most hate to leave, he said.
A look around shows why. SantAngelo owns the Kissimmee River Ranch and leases thousands of acres in Okeechobee and Highlands counties. A short drive down the sandy north end of 5260 Bluff Hammock Road brings hunters to a camp with wide porches. The hammock overhead is filled with Spanish moss, and blogs that mention Okeechobee Outfitters rave about the abundance of wildlife, especially wild pigs. Over the past five years, SantAngelo has appeared on the Outdoor Channel and ESPN Outdoors.
“Veteran’s families can’t just travel and afford that stuff,” SantAngelo said. He’s careful to invite one family at a time. “When we mix them, the veterans begin to talk about the war and leave the wives and kids out.”
The veterans come from all over the country. One of his guests, a combat veteran, confided to SantAngelo that he was suicidal at one time and had to leave the military after 18 years because of medical issues.
What SantAngelo doesn’t get a lot of, but what he wants to see more of, is local veterans. “I know we’ve got a lot of local vets from every era. I want to reach out to the local families, take them horseback riding, hunting and fishing.”
“We’re enjoying the outdoors as a family,” Corina Whittington said. The kids rode horses, and Allison’s take-home memory of the trip will be a hog’s head to mount on her wall. The kids wanted to ride in a swamp buggy, and that wish was granted too.
They weren’t cut off from civilization, their cell phones still worked, but for a little while, they forgot about texting and games and focused on hearing the wildlife and waiting for nature.
“People aren’t passing down the tradition to the younger generation,” Corina Whittington said. “People aren’t bringing their children to the outdoors, and it’s important. It’s important to me to hear the wildlife and relax out there.”
More info: Huntforvets.com or call email Danny SantAngelo at Okeechobeeoutfitters@yahoo.com.