Dora pastor leads wounded veterans in getting a real ‘Ozarks experience’
A group of wounded veterans from as far away as Alaska and North Carolina got a taste of Ozarks hospitality a few weeks ago as they floated 28 miles on the Current River, enjoying an autumn trip organized and led by Don Hamby, pastor of the Family Life Church in Dora. To make sure the vets got the full hillbilly experience, Hamby arranged for the river warriors’ first meal to include a mess of fried suckers cooked up by a local fish fryer as they set up camp at Round Spring campground.
“And after they ate, another guy took them out gigging,” Hamby said. “They got quite an Ozarks experience, right off the bat – the royal treatment, a fish fry and giggling, and some of the locals who came in to visit brought a pot of beans, too.”
Other local residents who added to the “royal treatment” of the wounded warriors included 14 wild horses – part of the resident herd that lives in the Ozark Scenic Rivers National Park near Eminence. “They came in through camp one morning about 3 or 4 a.m. Fortunately, some of the guys were up to see them. One was up going to the restroom, and he told the others. Some of the men asked me, ‘Did you arrange that too?’ I laughed and told them no,” Hamby said.
They even got to see bald eagles along the river. The veterans “really appreciated that,” he said.
Hamby arranged the trip with the help of wounded Vietnam veteran and evangelist Dave Roever, who has spoken at Family Life Church and other venues and churches in the area. Roever, who suffered severe burns while serving in Vietnam with the Navy’s Special Warfare Division, is the founder of the Roever Evangelistic Association and the Roever Educational Assistance Program based in Fort Worth, Texas. He and his wife, Brenda, operate two Eagles Summit Ranches in Texas and Colorado to assist wounded warriors and others from the military.
Local families and individuals provided sleeping bags, cots, tents and camping equipment for the “river warriors.” Family Life Church provided all the food, and a church in Willow Springs helped with transportation. A canoe rental business in Eminence donated all eight canoes needed for the trip. The National Park Service donated campsites, “and the rangers, and the conservation guys, everyone we encountered was very helpful,” Hamby said.
The group included wounded veterans from Alaska, North Carolina, Illinois, Tennessee, Colorado, Georgia and Michigan. “One was a Vietnam veteran who came with his son, a Coast Guard veteran who’d been at 9/11,” Hamby said.
Most of the others were Iraq and Afghanistan vets, ranging in age from the mid-30s to the mid-50s, he said, adding, “Most of them had never been in a canoe. One was missing an arm. He rode in my canoe, and he was good at paddling.”
Another member of the group was “full-blooded Navaho from the Four Corners area [of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah]. He talked about the Navaho Code Talkers of World War II. He had entertained five of them in his home before they died. He was very proud of that,” Hamby said.
Some of the wounded warriors had ongoing medical issues. One had lost an eye; some had head injuries and/or emotional injuries, Hamby said. His cousin, a family practice physician in Van Buren, Arkansas, came along to tend to their health needs. “He’s really busy and he works really hard, and I asked him if he would take a week off and go with us – and he did. He needed that down time too. He said, ‘If you do this again, count me in,’” Hamby said.
Because the group floated the current after the main summer tourist season had ended, there were very few other people on the river, he said.
The group shared devotional sessions each morning and each night around the campfire. “The first night, I asked the men to give me words to describe the day. They said things like, ‘Calm. Peaceful.’ One said he’d never felt that calm since he was injured,” Hamby said, adding, “You know, water ministers to us. Clear water. Living water. We talked about all those things.”
At the end of the trip, he asked one of the vets, the victim of a head injury, “How was the week for you?”
The veteran answered, “I never had any nightmares. It was the peacefulness of nature and being on the river.’” The veteran told Hamby, “Everybody ought to do that.”
The veterans agreed they want to come back – and bring their families.
The group camped three nights on the river. They had planned a four-night trip, but with rainstorms threatening, they canceled the last night and instead stayed in a Willow Springs hotel. On their last night in Missouri, they met with Roever, who was speaking at a ministerial conference in Willow Springs.
It was a good experience for everyone involved, Hamby said, sharing an anecdote about the day they left the river. “I was wanting a milkshake, and I told the guys I wanted to stop and get one. I said, ‘I’ll buy you one or you can watch me eat mine.’ So we stopped, and the people there welcomed us and were super friendly. Everywhere we went, people were that way,” Hamby said. “We live in a good area. It’s not like this everywhere. The guys were really impressed with all the respect and kindness they were shown. It was an awesome thing.”