Helping Heroes Heal
How one area man is using a TV show and the outdoors to give fellow combat veterans a voice.
“Dave, I didn’t sleep at all last night,” says the Vietnam veteran, unaffected by the video cameras that surround him in this most private of moments. “I was in the jungles of Vietnam. I could smell it. I could smell burning flesh. And I couldn’t shut my eyes. Because when I shut my eyes, I was in the jungle and people were dying.”
He’s at breakfast and seated across from David Morse, a man roughly 40 years his junior and a fellow veteran.
“That was really hard, but I’m glad I did it,” he continues. “Now let’s go catch some fish and not talk about Vietnam today.”
The pair just spent the previous night filming a sit-down interview for “American Heroes Outdoors,” a TV show founded by Dilworth-native Morse that highlights the stories of area veterans through hunting and fishing trips, and an emotional conversation has left the 72-year old ready to go sit out on a boat and let nature therapy work its magic.
His story is one of more than 25 that the show has told since its inception in 2014, and is the type that motivated Morse—a veteran of the Iraq War—to find a platform to celebrate these service members or as he refers to them, “heroes.”
We recently had the opportunity to speak with both Morse and Sam Floberg, an Afghan War veteran wounded in action and a volunteer with Wounded Warriors Guide Service—one of the organizations featured on “American Heroes”—about how the show is helping to bridge the disconnect between soldiers and civilians.
Did you know?
Wounded Warriors Guide Service hosts 30-40 trips each year across the US and Canada, though about 90 percent are held in the Midwest.
Founder & Host
“American Heroes Outdoors”
Wounded Warriors Guide Service
fargo inc!: David, what was the driving force behind wanting to start this show?
David Morse: “It’s really about bridging that gap between servicemen and women and civilian viewers. We want to give people a glimpse into the lives of these service members—who have these stories and who have served their country—without having to actually be around it.”
fi: A big part of “American Heroes Outdoors” is providing a unique look into the adjustment and healing process—decades on, in some cases—that comes with a veteran’s reacclimation to civilian life. What exactly do people not understand about that process that you want them to understand?
DM: “I think the majority of the general public will never understand. There’s no one way, shape, or form to put your finger on it and say, ‘This vet is healing from watching someone die’ or ‘This vet is healing from being blown up by an IED (improvised explosive device)’ or ‘This vet is healing from being in an austere environment where-every day when they suit up for a 12-hour shift-they’re scared of being killed.’ I think the main thing the general public can take away from the show is understanding that they’ll never understand and supporting veterans anyway.”
fi: There’s growing evidence that PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) and some of the other difficulties soldiers experience in that reacclimation process are partly the result of losing the sense of belonging that military life provides. Do you guys see that with a lot of the vets you work with?
DM: “When you join the military and are deployed, you’re in a close-knit community with people who put their life in your hands. So it even becomes that much more close. Everyone trusts everyone, and you’re with them every minute of every day for a long period of time.
“When you come back to normal society, you’re kicked to the curb. And not only do you have those experiences in your mind and the stress of hypervigilance and being in a combat zone, but the community that you’ve been a part of and in which you’ve formed these life-long relationships is ripped from you.
How it began
When Morse began volunteering with Wounded Warriors Guide Service—a cost-free, waterfowl-hunting guide service for veterans—in 2010, he knew after going on just a couple trips that wanted to do something similar.
“I was helping veterans and changing people’s lives one person at a time,” says Morse, whose full-time job is as a training officer with the Minnesota National Guard and who started a Wounded Warriors chapter in North Dakota in June 2010. “That’s what it was about for me. I find a lot of peace and solace in helping other people improve their quality of life.”
It was a couple years later that he was approached by a representative from Fox Sports North, and it was then that they came up with the idea to tell the stories of veterans through an outdoors TV show.
Did you know?
In 2014—the show’s first year—they filmed four episodes. In 2015, they filmed seven. This year? They’re up to nine. Morse says he hopes to eventually film 52 per year so that there’s a new episode every week.
“While we always wanted it to be about the stories, we knew the viewership wouldn’t be there,” Morse says. “And that’s where the outdoors component came in.”
“And there’s nothing that will fill that up. There’s nothing out there that will fill that void. But one of the things that will fill that void is numbness, and I think that’s where substance abuse comes from. If you can’t fill the void, you’d better mask it. Because it’s a dark place.”
fi: Was that your experience in returning from Afghanistan, Sam?
Sam Floberg: “At Walter Reed (the U.S. Army’s flagship medical center), it was like a cocoon because every patient there was an injured veteran. So you had everything you needed or wanted. There were organizations and political groups. There was a steak night every Friday that you could go to.
“When I came back to Fargo, reality really sank in, and I had to figure out how I was going to move on with my life. Everyone else who I had deployed with got on with their life, and for me, it was, ‘Okay, what am I going to do?’ It was trying to figure out a new normal.
“In my case, most weeks (in Afghanistan), we were outside of the FOB (forward operating base) five days out of the week. And you’re hypervigilant the entire time because you don’t know when an attack could happen. Then, you come back, and there’s no reason for hypervigilance, even though you’re still looking at garbage on the road and looking for certain smells and getting startled by things like a car backfiring.
I got hit on Thanksgiving Day. We were just doing a routine patrol so that another squad could come back in and have their Thanksgiving meal, and then they would get ready and go back out.
We were in an area that was always rocketed, and it was right at dusk so you couldn’t really make much out.
On one side of the road, it was IED (improvised explosive device) and Taliban central, and the other side of the road was like the dividing line. When we got up to this one area, a rocket came flying past and it was like, ‘Alright, what the hell was that?’ I heard it, but I was just focused on my area of engagement. Then, they radioed to us that we were under attack.
We turned around to identify who, what, where, when, and I yelled at the other gunners, ‘It’s coming from that side of the road! If you see anything, engage!’—If the enemy didn’t have enough people, they’d hit the last vehicle and run.
I watched the third round come in. It blew up on the outside of the vehicle and I thought, ‘Alright, the vehicle did its job. It protected us.’
Then, our comms went down, of course, and we yelled at the other gunners, ‘They’re right there! Engage!’ I was stuck with the SAW (squad automatic weapon), and, from what I recall, they didn’t open up until after I was hit. I was trying to shoot tracers to identify the area, but then our vehicle went down and all I remember is snapshots.
I was in shock.
I remember being in the turret and that I would climb back up and return fire. Then, I’d black out again and collapse down, and they’d try to do a leg sweep to pull me down, but they couldn’t find my legs. One of the guys ended up just getting on top of the vehicle and lifted me up and out, and he says, ‘Don’t look down.’ And when someone tells you to not look down, you look down.
The other guys were trying to find a vein to get some fluids into me and couldn’t because all my veins were collapsing, but I was laying there and while they were trying to work on me, I was like, ‘Hey, when you guys get back, I’m driving. Because I’ll have the handicap thing. Front-row parking at the bar. Let’s go!’
Then, it was eight months at Walter Reed (Hospital) learning how to walk and talk again. -SF
Did you know?
There are typically one or two camerapeople present during a given episode, and a team of four to five does all the filming, editing and production for the program.
“Also, when you come back, all of a sudden, you have choices. And people just don’t understand that.”
DM: “Yeah, that’s a big part of it is the choices.”
fi: Are these trips part of figuring out that new normal?
DM: “Yes, but what we’re doing is recreating that relationship, even if it’s a weekend at a time. We’re recreating that relationship where people can come together, and we don’t even necessarily have to talk about anything. If you filled a room with vets, we could just eat and talk about football. There’s just a certain comfort level in the room. It’s weird.”
SF: “Dave always says it’s about the stories—and that’s part of it—but it’s the camraderie. It’s about getting together with other veterans—of whatever branch—and not having to explain things to them. You just tell your story, and it’s easy for them to fill in the gaps. And you don’t get questions like, ‘Did you kill anyone?’
“When I say to a civilian, ‘I got blown up by an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade),’ sometimes your story can go too far in in-depth and can bring back a lot of memories you don’t want.”
Did you know?
Morse says they weren’t sure “what the show was” at first. Morse summarizes their approach to the first episode, which, coincidentally, featured Floberg, “We just threw a camera guy in a boat with Sam and a pro fisherman and said, ‘Shoot this.’”
fi: What role do the trips themselves play in getting these guys to open up?
DM: “One of the main reasons we do the show in the outdoors is because it’s a great place to open up. If we did it in an office, we would never get what we wanted. But doing it in a hunting blind or on a lake, it’s never forced. It’s always just about the experience.
“Then, as the experience goes on through different questions that I might ask and that we talk about, that’s when the opening up starts to happen and people start talking about their stories a little bit. And then we start bridging that gap (with the audience).
“People watching at home can say, ‘I learned all about this guy. He sat there in the boat and talked to Dave about stuff I never would’ve known about.’ And they can see themselves in the boat and they’re right there with us.”
SF: “Being out in nature—on the river, on the lake, out in a field—to me, just takes away all the other stressors of life.”
Did you know?
Morse is not just the show’s host and interviewer but also does pre-production and post-production work.
fi: Some of these veterans have never talked about this stuff to anyone. Is it hard getting them to talk about their experiences?
DM: “Nine times out of 10, if it’s not forced and we let them be, they’ll open up.
“What usually happens is you start by asking the basic stuff like, ‘State your first and last name and branch of service’ and ‘What did we do out here today?’ and somewhere in the interview, it’s almost like their eyes glaze over and they’re gone. I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it.
“You just know when to shut up. You know when to sit there and let it unfold, and (in their mind), they’re back there in that experience. There are so many times I’ve been a front-seat witness to that, and it’s the most awesome feeling in the world. Because I know they’re in their deepest, darkest secrets, and most of the time after they’re done, they’re crying. They just kind of sigh and are like, ‘Where did I go for a second?’
“Then, you show it to them later and they go, ‘That was awesome. I’ve been to psychiatrists and psychologists and I’ve talked about this many times, and they usually sit me down and go right into it. But with this, I got to talk about it by myself and I feel great.’”
fi: I’d imagine you being a combat veteran yourself, David, is a big part of them being comfortable enough to lose themselves like that.
DM: “Yes—someone who’s been there. Someone who isn’t a glory-seeker. Someone who knows the show isn’t about them. If you watch the show, I do an introduction and some supporting stuff, but I think what makes it special is it’s not ‘The Dave Morse Hunting Show,’ where I bring vets on and try to get some popularity out of it. They’re the focal point. It needs to be on them.”
Did you know?
While Wounded Warriors Guide Service hosts a majority of the trips featured on “American Heroes Outdoors,” the show has a number of other partner organizations such as Walleyes for Wounded Heroes, Purple Hearts and Heroes and Disabled American Veterans (DAV).
fi: David, I wanted to close with this. You use the word “hero” alot. It’s even in the title of the show. What, specifically, does it mean to you?
DM: “The definition of a hero, to me, is an ordinary person facing extraordinary circumstances and acting with a certain set of skills. We’ll call it honor, duty, integrity. A hero isn’t someone who’s born. A hero is someone who faces adversity, who faces overwhelming obstacles and does the right thing.”
How to watch “American Heroes Outdoors”
• Show airs twice a week on Fox Sports North (during Q2)
• Also airs on Midco Sports Network – twice per week, 52 weeks per year
If you’re interested in learning more about AHO or becoming a corporate sponsor:
Founder and Host
American Heroes Outdoors