Veterans in the WildNov 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Paula Piatt
Travis McConnell said “no.” Immediately and without hesitation.
When Rose Anna Moore reached out to him for help, he thought she needed something built or some metal fabrication, given his family business background in that department. The last thing the Marine Corps veteran wanted to do was lead a program for people. Horses, maybe. Or dogs. But he wasn’t looking to get involved with people.
“He said ‘no’ and got a piece of paper and wrote down probably ten people’s phone numbers and why I should contact them,” Rose laughs, remembering the day she asked him to help create a program for veterans—people—who were struggling to connect, and reconnect, with their families, their feelings, and their place in society.
Rose, who will be forty-seven in December, is founder and CEO of the Wellsboro-based nonprofit, This Is My Quest. She had owned and operated a sporting goods store, but left the world of retail for this new opportunity.
“My plan of building the nonprofit has been developing since I owned my first store in Mansfield,” she says. “The store in Wellsboro was always going away at some point to run the nonprofit full time, and my time on [the History Channel program] Alone, and covid, just solidified my belief that my choice to close the store was where I needed to be.”
She was already getting women and children in the outdoors, but personal experience told her that veterans needed an outlet, too. Not just to the outdoors, but to rejoin their families and society, to learn how to cope again with the world around them, and to find a purpose. Her father, a Vietnam vet, came home to nothing in the way of programs. Discharged, he was on his own, and so was his family.
“I think he has always had a hard time with life since he served in Vietnam,” says Rose. “The resources weren’t there when he returned, and I think it contributed a lot to him not being my father. I met him later in [my] life. He tries really hard now to be my father, but it’s hard because I don’t know how to have a father, so we struggle with our relationship.”
That’s why Veterans in the Wild, This Is My Quest’s latest initiative, focuses on relationships. For all the great programs that take veterans on once-in-a-lifetime hunts, Rose notes many are just that—once in a lifetime.
“I’ve worked with a lot of amazing organizations. I’m not taking anything away from them, giving people those opportunities to go on hunts or excursions in the outdoors, but I would meet them one time and didn’t see them again because there are so many veterans they had to help. I wanted to do something a little different; I wanted to stay with them,” she says.
She also knows what post-traumatic stress disorder can do. As a participant in the eighth season of Alone, Rose found she was anything but as she traversed the wilds of west-central British Columbia. Dropped off on the remote Chilko Lake, the object of the “game” was to survive alone with nothing but ten pieces of equipment, ingenuity, and her wits long enough to outlast the other participants.
Your wits last only so long when you’re being stalked by a grizzly bear.
“I’ve been in grizzly bear country before, but here one had been watching me for a few hours and it became a dangerous situation. I was in a very fragile state,” she says as she remembers coping with starvation and the mental and physical challenges it brings. “It was certainly not military related, but I can understand how hard it is to come back to the world after being in another world and trying to heal at the same time. I found that [PTSD] is very prevalent in a lot of people because of life—a car accident, a mugging, or something that happens to them in society.
“[PTSD] was something that I didn’t want to say that I had. That was a hard thing for me to adjust to, accept, and accept treatment for,” she continues. “The outdoors was where I needed to go back to, to try to make things better, because the real world here was too overwhelming for me.”
So with This Is My Quest having firmly established its children’s and women’s programs, a veteran component was the next perfect fit. And, knowing his story, Rose knew Travis was the one to lead.
“I knew that the outdoors was really factoring in for Travis,” she says of his recovery. “Having a purpose really helps people to heal. When you can find a purpose, it gives you a better quality of life, especially for people who are driven to help other people, and Travis is one of those people. He’s a very, very kind human being. I thought he would be the perfect person because he could understand the level to which I wanted to take this program.”
Travis didn’t see the “perfect” in the situation.
Animals Yes, People No
Born and raised in Tioga County, Travis headed off to the Marines after graduation from Wellsboro Area High School in 2004. He was eyeing a law enforcement career. Stationed at California’s Camp Pendleton after boot camp, he was assigned to the deployable First Marine Division MP Company, and by 2005 was in Fallujah, Iraq. “Not necessarily a pleasant place,” he remembers.
As a member of a quick reaction force, he responded to any unit that was in trouble, bringing them safely home to a base or ending whatever conflict they were in.
“During that deployment, my truck was hit by IEDs (improvised explosive devices) more than one time. I suffered some minor injuries and several concussions from the explosions,” he says. He returned to Camp Pendleton in 2006, only to be deployed again to Iraq later that year. Back in the States by 2007, he was chosen to train K9s and found himself in Cherry Point, North Carolina, as a kennel master and dog trainer. His only deployments were now stateside, and included security for the United Nations General Assembly in New York and support of local law enforcement. His bond with animals began to take shape.
By the time he reached his next assignment—a recruiting station in suburban Philadelphia—health issues were starting to take their toll. He retired after nine and a half years of service, and he and his wife, Noell, returned to Wellsboro.
Tioga County might not have changed much, but Travis had. Moving back with no real plan, he worked a few “odds and ends” jobs and partnered with his brother and dad in the family’s sheet metal business. But the health issues would not go away.
“I would black out here and there,” he says. After one particularly bad episode, his family convinced him to see a doctor, who diagnosed him with a traumatic brain injury and promptly took away his driver’s license. The Veteran’s Administration labeled him as “unemployable” and placed him on 100 percent disability.
“My whole way of living was a truck full of tools. Now, I’m not allowed to work anymore; in my mid-thirties, I was retired,” he remembers. “For someone who worked their entire life in very physical jobs, I did not how to handle that. That point in my life, it was a pretty dark time. I was very depressed, I had a lot of mental problems, and I drank a lot.”
For its part, Travis says the VA was trying to help. “Their solution to a lot of things is medication,” he says. “But when the patient is not the best patient and they drink a lot, that leads to other problems.” A scary—life-threatening—situation opened his eyes.
“I lost all memory of everything that happened. The story goes that I actually stopped breathing at one point and my brother and wife were trying to keep me alive.” He quit drinking, got his medications sorted out, and set out to find a purpose.
As a kid, he had spent a lot of time outdoors and had tagged along on his dad’s hunting and fishing trips. Maybe the outdoors would help him heal. So, he started volunteering at Second Chance Animal Sanctuaries’ Heading Home shelter.
Just Walking Dogs
“Animals and the outdoors are the things that bring me the most peace. I would walk dogs out in the fields and the woods, especially the dogs they said were too dangerous for people to work with. Being a dog handler, I felt I had the experience to be able to help those dogs the most,” he says, remembering the bonds he had formed as a K9 handler. “Through that, I met somebody who had horses, and I started going on trail rides, which I found to be more therapeutic than anything.”
Content with the animals, the last thing Travis wanted to do was to get involved with people.
“I struggle with people,” he admits. “I feel like I have to pretend to be something I’m not; I have to put a smile on my face even if I’m having a bad day with pain or a bad day mentally. But if I go outside, into the woods, or on a lake or a river, it’s just me or just me and a friend, and I have the ability to feel whatever emotion I need to feel that day or that minute. It’s calm, it’s peaceful, it’s just you and nature.”
Rose knew that’s why she needed Travis. He understood that healing took time; just one fishing trip, while fun for the day, wasn’t going to make a lasting impact. Relationships needed to be built and the passion for the outdoors rekindled in a way that would lead veterans to draw in other veterans. That’s where the true difference was going to be made.
Travis wasn’t so sure.
“I immediately told her no. I can’t do that; I don’t want to do that,” he says. But after discussing it with Noell, realizing it was an opportunity to give back for all those who had helped him, he called Rose. “I said ‘I’ll help you build it with the understanding that when we get it going, we’ll find somebody else to run it.’”
Rose would take that, and turned the program over to the best possible person to create something that would help struggling veterans—a veteran who has struggled himself.
“I wanted to focus on one individual at a time who was suffering from an injury, physical or mental, from their service. I call it ‘Control the Chaos,’ especially for the veterans who are suffering more mentally,” Travis explains. “That’s the best way I can describe what happens in the mind of a veteran dealing with that kind of situation. Your mind is just chaos. Finding a way to control that, to find a purpose again, or find something that breaks the chaos—controls the chaos—allows you to focus again.”
A second outlet offers a group setting—maybe fishing, camping, hunting, or just sitting around a campfire with a cup of coffee.
“It’s like an outdoor club, where people can get together and share stories, while doing an activity outdoors,” Travis continues. Trips have included a pheasant hunt at Martz’s Gap View Hunting Preserve in Dalmatia, Pennsylvania, and a kayak trip down Pine Creek with small groups of veterans who will someday lead others through Veterans in the Wild.
Another initiative, Elder Adventures, was born of a conversation with a friend working as a physical therapist in a local nursing home. There were a lot of veterans there; the therapist was wondering if there was something available for them.
“Here, we’re focusing on our older generation veterans who have been told ‘you can’t go do this anymore’ or ‘you’re never going to be able to do this again because you have this health problem,’ or ‘you’re just too old.’ I don’t like anybody being told that they can’t, especially someone who has done so much and has been so independent in everything their entire life,” says Travis. “We give them an opportunity to go on a fishing trip, or take them out, just somewhere out in nature to relax and enjoy an activity they used to enjoy and have been told that they can’t do anymore.”
Regardless of the program, each opportunity is individualized. Travis knows that each veteran is dealing with a very specific situation, and the outdoors offers very specific solutions.
“When we are talking to a veteran, we go through a lot of questions. ‘What do you like to do?’ ‘What did you used to like to do?’ Or ‘What do you think you would like to do?’ If they have zero experience, we give them some options,” he says. “One person might find fishing absolutely frustrating and it makes their mood worse. Another person might not want to hunt because they don’t want to harvest an animal. There are so many variables, so we leave it completely open.”
All the while, says Travis, it’s about that relationship, and about opening doors for that veteran to find a purpose.
“We don’t take somebody on a hunting trip and that’s it, they never see us again,” he says. “We work with them one-on-one and hope they find a passion in the outdoors, that they’ll want to continue to work with us and maybe be a mentor for the next veteran or in one of Rose’s other programs. Maybe they want to mentor a kid to fish or kayak or whatever. The hope is that we can instill enough passion in somebody for them to want to continue.”
The outdoors may be the focus that draws people in, but it’s just the beginning. Both Rose and Travis are committed to the veterans themselves, not just their activities.
Rex, a veteran, lives alone in Tioga County. A frequent visitor when Rose owned Moore’s Sport Center in Wellsboro, he’s now battling cancer, facing trips to Brooklyn, New York, for treatment and surgery, diet changes, and a complicated health system. That’s a lot for a sixty-eight-year-old to navigate by himself. True to the This Is My Quest motto, Rex is “Never Alone.”
“We’ll all care for him,” says Rose of not only herself and Travis, who regularly take him to appointments, but the legion of ladies making and freezing meals for him, and those friends who will visit his home to help keep it tidy and offer him some companionship. “When he starts to feel better and can get into the outdoors again, he’ll be fishing with Travis. We’ll get him back outside when we can, but we’ll stay with him indoors or outdoors, wherever he needs us,” Rose says.
Help Others, Help Yourself
In many ways, the logistics of the coordination, the travel, and the trips, have been the easy part. Finding veterans to participate is the struggle. They have the program, they have volunteer support, and they have willing donors. They need to find the veterans they know are out there—the ones who aren’t looking for a program, but instead suffer in silence.
“As it turns out, veterans don’t reach out. I knew that because I’m that way and still am to a degree. [Veterans] don’t ask for help, they don’t seek help, they don’t look for programs like this,” says Travis. It’s a product, he adds, of their military training. “The mindset is created in the military in general. We’re told to deal with it and get by. Trying to break that stigma and let [veterans] know that it’s okay to talk about it, it’s okay to get help—that’s a difficult thing to break through. We’re reaching out to anyone who can put us in contact with a veteran with needs and wants, even if it’s just sitting around a campfire and sharing a coffee and talking.”
Still in its first year, both Travis and Rose are determining what works and what doesn’t for Veterans in the Wild. They know it’s a long (and winding) road, one that’s familiar to them. Rose and her dad, now dealing with advanced COPD, are still working on their relationship. Travis, on his own journey, continues to build the program. Is he still waiting for Rose to find someone else to run things? Maybe not.
“Did he tell you that he is now vice president?” laughs Rose about Travis’s new position at This Is My Quest.
He may want to keep that list of ten phone numbers. He’s probably going to need some help.