“On the battlefield, the military pledges to leave no soldier behind. As a nation, let it be our pledge that when they return home, we leave no veteran behind.”
The wind whistles around her blonde hair as she sights in on her target. Tuning out the laughing chatter from the next stage, her focus is on the black dot far in the distance and the steady, calm instruction coming from a voice to her left. Calculating for the wind, the distance, and the firearm that she has been practicing with for months, she takes the shot. “IMPACT!” someone calls, a split second before the distant plink is audible to onlookers.
13-year-old Justice Snell shifts to the next target and follows suit, clearing the stage. Snell lies in the frozen mud next to her father, US Marine Corps veteran Toby Snell, one of the American Freedom Fund Patriots Shooting Team members, who came to this match outside of Cheney, Washington, on a chilly Saturday in January with his daughter and other teammates, giving no thought to the below-freezing temperatures and knee-deep mud crisscrossing the range. This is what they do. They stamp their feet to stay warm between stages and watch as each shooter navigates their way through the course, picking up tips and angles from the experience of competitors before them.
Snell and his daughter are joined at the match by Inar Frostad, a Navy vet who met Snell briefly when they both served as Range Officers (RO) for a different match. Both local to the area, Snell and Frostad connected over their shared military experience and love for shooting. They came together again at the AFF Catch 22 Shoot outside of Kettle Falls in 2017, where they met more veteran shooters from northeastern Washington, including Patrick Flanagan, a former Air Force SSgt, who is also here at the Miller Ranch for this cold morning match. Flanagan has been part of the program since it’s inception and says AFF has provided support and friendships that have lasted over the years.
“They do more than that, AFF also holds us accountable to do more with our lives. They get us involved in local events and fundraisers that support external organizations, giving us a higher purpose while giving back to the community.” Flanagan says.
There were no high stakes here at the Miller Ranch Small Game Shoot. No major awards or fancy prize tables, just a lot of mud, laughs, and before the last stage of the event, a cloud bank that would roll in and enshroud the whole range with pea-soup fog, completely obliterating the targets from sight. The shooting team shrugged off the early end with a laugh, happy to be in a heated vehicle together headed toward warm food and storytelling.
The takeaway from this shoot are the growing friendships. The knowledge that just up the road there’s another guy who’s been there: deployed to some foreign place, witnessing things that their friends back home can’t relate to. Here they have somebody else who gets it. They’ve got kids and families who support and love them, but this is where all those memories and questions from their years of service find a place to surface, even if they aren’t answered, or spoken, they are shared. These guys know. They share the restless itch that civilian life and jobs don’t quite scratch. Their mutual discontent, right under the surface, remembers what it was like to be part of a team fighting for something that mattered, maybe even for their lives.
Bringing generations together, Vietnam veterans and Gulf War vets and the veterans of more recent conflicts, together with their families, kids like Justice, parents and spouses, building that safety net of understanding and support. Snell’s 13-year-old daughter outshot most of the vets from the team that day (at her first ever official competition) except maybe her dad, upping the challenge for the next shoot, which will hopefully be a little warmer.
The American Freedom Fund was founded in 2016 by three combat veterans, LT Don Bramer, MAJ Rob Miller, and Petty Officer Gabe Stecker. After their individual tours of duty, they sought a way to continue serving their brothers and sisters in arms by providing the Veteran community the means to maintain fellowship and support as they move through new phases of life. AFF empowers Active Duty, Reserve and Separated Service Members through a mission of athletics, education, and advocacy. The goal of AFF is simple: provide a place for active duty and Veteran service members to come together in a spirit of camaraderie to participate in recreational and competitive sports. This year AFF has launched a shooting team in Oklahoma and northeastern Texas in addition to the veteran shooters that compete in Washington State, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Montana, and trap shooting participants in Virginia and Maryland.
Every event the shooting team is able to compete in happens because these guys and gals have a community that supports them. Donations to the American Freedom Fund from supporters help to cover the registration and ammunition costs of these multi-generational matches that bring vets and their families together. It makes it just a little easier and a little more possible for vets who have bills to pay and families to provide for. For more information, visit www.AmericanFreedomFund.org or find the American Freedom Fund on Facebook and Instagram.
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