Brothers in Arms
Never failing a comrade, Darby’s Warrior Support provides hunting, fishing for military
By Dwain Hebda
Over more than three decades, 26 years in active duty, Shawn Daniel saw a little bit of everything during his time as a U.S. Army Ranger. His service led him to some of the most dangerous places in the post-9/11 world, as well as to stateside assignments such as Fort Benning, Georgia, where he and some buddies would take their leisure hunting wood ducks on local ponds.
Daniel, an Arkansas native, enjoyed the recreation but always admonished his buddies with the same directive.
“I kept telling them that we needed to go to Arkansas,” he recalled, “so I could show them how this ‘duck hunting thing’ was really supposed to be done, in the duck hunting capital of the world.”
Being a man of his word, Daniel introduced three of his comrades to Arkansas’ famed duck hunting grounds in December 2001. The hunting wasn’t particularly good, but the guests were duly impressed by what they saw. The trip was additionally salvific for having come on the heels of the quartet’s first deployment to Afghanistan, and the brothers in arms resolved to make the outing an annual occurrence, which they have ever since.
That simple gathering planted the seeds for Darby’s Warrior Support, a Searcy-based nonprofit dedicated to providing all-inclusive Arkansas hunting and fishing experiences to physically and emotionally injured post-9/11 Special Operations combat veterans. As with the original hunt among those four friends, the quarry takes a back seat to the camaraderie.
“The first three to five years [the foursome] was focused on how many ducks we could shoot, but we eventually realized the power of the weekend was really in the time we got to spend together,” Daniel said. “It was the opportunity to catch up and to check on one another as we all moved on to other duty stations and deployed numerous more times.”
“We decided we needed to share the experience with others who were enduring the same operational tempo.”
Since it launched in 2004, Darby’s Warrior Support has grown to accommodate 128 soldiers a year on its outings, typically four at a time in each of the group’s two “lodges,” which are Daniel’s parents’ house and a farmhouse donated by a patron. Arrival is Friday, and hunting occurs through Monday morning, all for the cost of a hunting license.
“We reimburse ground travel, we provide all equipment and feed them like kings,” Daniel said. “It’s an opportunity for guys who are running really, really hard in terms of deployment cycles-—and have been for a long time—to relax, decompress a little bit, perhaps knock something off their bucket list.”
The weekends, which run September through about May, are open to all 9/11 generation combat veterans, the vast majority of them still on active duty, with a particular focus on the Special Operations community. In addition to duck hunting, the group also sponsors trout fishing weekends, a component that Daniel is looking to expand in the coming months.
The foursomes aren’t random groups of strangers thrown together. Participants are selected from the same unit to help bonding and communication happen more naturally, the same way the original foursome experienced it. In fact, the weekends don’t have any formal therapy or “sharing sessions” at all; the environment and experiences tend to elicit that all on their own.
“These guys come in from all kinds of different traumatic experiences on combat deployments,” Daniel said. “Nobody’s trying to get them to bare their soul, but when they come in here, a long way away from their military installation, they’re somewhat overwhelmed and they share. I can’t prove it scientifically or medically, but there’s a lot of healing that’s going on.”
The organization plays another important role in the lives of servicemen, that being creating connections between the soldiers and members of the business community, such as those who are patrons of Darby’s Warriors.
“From a guy who’s done it for the last 13 months, transition from military life to civilian life is very challenging,” said Daniel, now with Stephens, Inc. “When they come hunt with us, more often than not they get to interact with some influential businessmen in the state of Arkansas.”
“Two things occur; one, the businessmen realize the quality and caliber of people that we have serving. The other piece of it is, the soldiers realize, ‘I can do this, I can have meaningful conversations with successful businessmen and I can do this transition thing.’”
Darby’s Warrior Support features just two paid employees and limited seasonal help, buoyed by countless volunteer hours by Daniel and fellow Army Ranger Command Sergeant Major (Retired) Dennis Smith. Still, it takes about $200,000 annually to sustain operations.
“If folks want to volunteer on some of our work weekends, that’s great,” Daniel said. “If folks have in-kind donations to help our cause, that’s great. If folks want to designate us as their charity of choice on Amazon Smile, we’ll get (a percentage) of anything they purchase at no extra cost to them.”
For more information, visit the group’s website at darbyswarriorsupport.org.