Program aims to honor veterans and reconnect families

By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

BOZEMAN – When Army Staff Sergeant Nathan Shurter arrived in Helena with his wife Olivia on Nov. 1, he seemed to be heralding in the winter season in Montana. With light snow falling across central Montana and temperatures dipping into the teens, Shurter, a South Carolina resident, says he wasn’t sure what to expect of the coming days.

But what was to come, Shurter says, “was an incredible experience.”

Four years ago, Shurter was on patrol in Afghanistan when his squad leader stepped on an IED (improvised explosive device) and was killed. Shurter sustained injuries to his arms and legs in the explosion.

Shurter’s road to recovery began when he was medevacked to Germany for treatment. It continued with his decision to return to service following treatment to his wounds. And another stretch of the road to recovery began when Shurter stepped foot in Helena.

Shurter came to Montana as a participant of the Big Hearts under the Big Sky program, a nonprofit branch of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association that provides family experiences for veterans who provided extraordinary service, children fighting life-threatening illness, or women being treated for breast cancer.

Under the program, licensed MOGA outfitters donate fully guided fishing, hunting or horseback trips to individuals referred into the program, as a way of reconnecting families to each other and to the outdoors, said MOGA Executive Director Mac Minard, who guided Shurter’s trip.

Several months ago, Minard called Shurter to tell him he was selected for a unique opportunity to hunt elk in the Boulder Valley south of Helena, in hunting district 380. Minard asked if Shurter was ready to go. “I told him I was ready,” Shurter said.

On the third day of the hunt, Shurter found himself flat on his stomach, crawling through newly fallen snow in order to get into position to take a bull elk. He was successful in his endeavor.

“He really earned his elk and Olivia was with him every step of the way,” Minard said.

“The animal is important, but it isn’t the most important,” Minard added. “It’s family time and getting to do something they haven’t gotten to do before. … Sharing the experience is a principal part of the program.”

Minard explained that many veterans are unable to pursue their outdoor passions after joining the military, and this program gives them a chance to re-explore their interests. But beyond reconnecting the veteran to the outdoors, Minard hopes the Big Hearts program reconnects participants to their families.

“It has little to do with the catch and harvest,” Minard said. “It has everything to do with honoring the sacrifice of the family.”

“I’m very grateful. Very proud to have done this,” Shurter said. “The experience with the hunt, with the environment, with the people … there are so many people that care so much about us.”

Olivia and Nathan, who recently celebrated their first wedding anniversary, both agreed it would be hard to leave. “What they’re doing in Big Hearts, I don’t know anything with the value and the quality,” Shurter said.

For Shurter’s experience, the Big Hearts program operated under a 2013 Montana law that allows residents and nonresidents to transfer their hunting licenses to Purple Heart military recipients.

Minard was astounded that a nonresident would donate a hunting tag in the competitive 380 hunting district. “The bull tags are few and far between even for residents,” Minard said. In 2016, for example, only two nonresident bull tags were awarded for the district after 931 individuals applied.

Big Hearts under the Big Sky has been operating for ten years and works on a volunteer basis. Outfitters, guides, taxidermists and others donate their time for the participants, and hard costs like lodging and travel are paid with funds the nonprofit raises during the year. Minard estimates Shurter’s trip would have cost between $10,000 and $15,000 at full retail.

The largest of the Big Hearts fundraisers takes place Jan. 13, 2018, at the Radisson Colonial Hotel in Helena, and in 2019 and 2020 the annual event will come to Bozeman.

To learn more about the Big Hearts under the Big Sky program, visit bigheartsmt.org. To learn more about donating hunting licenses to veterans, visit fwp.mt.gov/hunting/licenses/donateLicense.html.