Dennis Stevens, a longtime volunteer with a program that regularly flies wounded warriors to the Red Lodge area for a week of guided outdoor activities and an outpouring of community respect for their sacrifice, remembers a double amputee named Manny who once told Stevens he’d been to precisely two places in his lifetime — Brooklyn, New York, and Afghanistan, where he lost his legs.
Stevens, an experienced horseman, was concerned that he didn’t have Manny strapped to his horse safely. The veteran only laughed.
“What am I gonna do — fall and break my leg?” the soldier told Stevens.
“Between day one and day five (of their visit), you see people transform, and it is amazing,” Stevens said of the Operation Second Chance program. “Out in nature, the stress leaves them, which is very healing.”
Begun locally nearly a decade ago by Hank Tuell and other Red Lodge-area veterans, Operation Second Chance works with wounded, injured and ill combat veterans while they recover in military hospitals. Based in Maryland, Operation Second Chance organizes retreats, sporting events, hospital visits and more for recuperating veterans and their families.
The services cost veterans nothing.
Residents of Luther, northwest of Red Lodge, Stevens and his wife Nancy own Great Clips salons in Billings and other places. The company supports Operation Second Chance, with Great Clips’ board chairman, Ray Barton, who is Stevens’ brother-in-law, once telling Stevens, “I will keep flying them (to the Red Lodge retreats). But if I ever hear anybody not flying first class, I’ll stop doing it.”
According to Stevens, the visits are “intimate and hands-on,” since they’re limited to eight or fewer veterans and, increasingly, their spouses. “You watch them bond during the week, and it’s amazing. We are there to support them and just let the week happen. It’s our job to get out of the way and let them experience it.”
A group of veterans was due to arrive in Red Lodge last weekend to enjoy a week-long hunt. Some wounded veterans become so enamored with the Red Lodge area that they move there permanently following their retreat, according to Stevens.
Typically, two groups of veterans arrive in Red Lodge during the summer. They’re met at the Billings airport, taken to their place to stay and then given what Stevens called “a community dinner.”
On the first full day of the retreat, the group is taken on a horseback expedition, followed by a day each spent rafting and four-wheeling.
The fourth day, a day off for the visitors, is the chance for the community of Red Lodge to shine. Community donations allow everything from the distribution of $250 gift cards to free massages.
On the final full day, the group takes in Yellowstone National Park, and flies home the next day.
“I think they go back with a sense of hope, which is part of what this program gives them,” Stevens said. “All of them come here with some emotional issues, some very significant. It helps them to have hope to want to rejoin society.”
On a promotional video, Tuell, a retired colonel, says he participates because he wants veterans to know they’re appreciated. He bases that on the way that Vietnam veterans — Tuell’s generation — were treated upon their return.
“This is a town that loves America,” Tuell said of Red Lodge. When the group began fundraising, “I wandered around downtown, and immediately we had free rooms and free meals. This town couldn’t do enough to say thank you.”
The Red Lodge example is being used by other Operation Second Chance chapters as they set up retreat opportunities of their own. One potential organizer, a motorcycle enthusiast, wants to begin an annual trip to Sturgis so that veterans can enjoy the famous motorcycle rally.
“He hung out with us all summer,” Stevens said. “We have a manual now that we give out to people setting up retreats in their part of the country.”
Stevens said he’s not worried that the program will fade away once its founders slow down. But they will continue to seek out younger partners.
“I hope young people in the community will see this spirit of ‘What can I do?’ and say, ‘You know what? I’m going to make this thing continue,'” he said.