Matt Amos’ friends and family know what’s coming: For the first half of December this year, he’ll be unreachable. Just like every deer rifle-hunting season, the 40-year-old will be on the land he owns in southeast Kansas.
“I prep for whitetails year round, and I’m pretty much a ghost during rifle season,” said the Sedgwick County Electric Cooperative member who lives with his wife and two daughters in Mount Hope, about a mile from Cheney Lake. “I’m out at my cabin and while I may not necessarily take a deer, I’ll watch them and study patterns to see if what I’ve done that year as far as food plots and nutrition are working for them and what I need to do better for them.”
In the past eight years, he’s hunted bear in British Columbia, moose in Canada, big horn sheep in New Mexico, nilgai antelope in Texas along with other majestic hunting and fishing sites across North America, but whitetail deer in Kansas remain his passion.
That passion was what filled his thoughts in 2011 while he was in a hospital bed at the Naval Medical Center – San Diego recovering from a traumatic amputation of parts of both legs. The question on his mind wasn’t how would he walk again, but how would he hunt again.
“Being from Kansas, being outdoors was a big part of my life,” said Amos, who grew up hunting and fishing around Cheney Lake and attended schools in Andale. “I love hunting, fishing, anything outdoors.”
The answer for the Marine Corps Sergeant came less than a year after a June 2011 improvised explosive device blast in Afghanistan that led to the below the knee amputation of his left leg and above the knee amputation of his right. Amos was one of about 50 wounded warriors invited in 2012 on a therapeutic expedition with Wounded Warrior Outdoors.
When he went on the bear hunt in British Columbia in spring 2012, he was still working through physical therapy and having a tough time transitioning from using a wheelchair to using prosthetic legs. He had both with him on the trip, but the legs were uncomfortable and he wasn’t confident using them.
As the first bear appeared in a field, the volunteer guides hauled out Amos’ wheelchair and he tried to navigate the rocky terrain. The noise scared off the bear.
A few days later, Amos was lucky enough to see a second bear and, with encouragement from the volunteers, he forced himself to stay on his legs while crossing rocks and grass to set up at a boulder and take down his first bear.
“That was when the lightbulb clicked on for me,” Amos said. “I could do it. They pushed me to the limit and showed me what I was capable of.”
He came home with a different mindset. If he could succeed on mountainous, uneven terrain, he could succeed at home on sidewalks and even terrain. And, importantly, he could still do the things that made him happy before the injury.
He wrote this message to Wounded Warrior Outdoors volunteers and it appeared in the nonprofit’s annual newsletter: “To the folks at WWO, ‘Thank You’ does not even begin to convey the amount of gratitude for everything that you have done for me and fellow brothers this past week. Who would have thought that only 11 months after being injured that I’d be on the most amazing hunt of my life.”
Besides writing that note, Amos wanted to be a part of giving other wounded warriors a chance to have the same life-changing experience so he became a volunteer with the nonprofit.
Amos said he had to plead with the founder of Wounded Warrior Outdoors, Ron Raboud, to let him volunteer because Raboud didn’t want it to appear he was exploiting a warrior. You’ll find little media about the group’s efforts for this reason, and most volunteers do not have military service backgrounds.
“It’s phenomenal to be a veteran and see all these people serving those who have served,” Amos said. “It’s the best of both worlds coming together.”
Florida-based businessman and longtime hunter Raboud started Wounded Warrior Outdoors in 2009 after striking up a conversation on a commercial flight with a group of wounded warriors who were eager to figure out how to get back to hunting.
“Ron’s father served in World War II and his father was a wounded warrior,” Amos said. “He saw the challenges that his father went through, and when he met that group in the airport his mind started working on a way to make hunting happen.”
WWO started out working with three United States military medical centers to provide therapeutic-focused outdoor adventures to active-duty servicemen and women in transition who were injured during Operation Enduring Freedom (2001-2014) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003-2011). Warriors are selected for participation by the medical staff at each hospital (Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Bethesda, Naval Medical Center San Diego and San Antonio Military Medical Center), and each is paired with the adventure that provides them the greatest therapeutic potential.
The organization still focuses on the wounded from those operations who received treatment at one of those facilities. Amos said many of the warriors coming through the program now may have not been able or willing to participate sooner.
“For some, not being surrounded by military folks any longer can wear them down over time and they need to reconnect for their mental well-being,” Amos said. “When you get out of the military and you go back home, you’re surrounded by people who don’t necessarily know the things that have gone on or the challenges faced. This is one way of bringing them back together with others who have served and allowing them to reconnect.”
As a lead volunteer, Amos helps organize WWO’s 10 or so annual group adventures along with a few individual trips throughout the year. In a typical year, WWO takes about 110 wounded warriors on expeditions from salmon fishing in Alaska to hunting gators and hogs in Florida.
The five- to seven-day excursions are called “Adventures Enabled,” and they are all-inclusive: transportation, lodging, meals and equipment needed. Private donations ensure no cost is passed along to the warriors, their families or taxpayers. Amos said the trips costs about $5,000 per warrior and WWO remains run completely by volunteers so 96 cents of every dollar donated goes directly to the wounded warriors.
Making a Difference
Amos’ transition wasn’t easy, despite coming home from his WWO bear hunt with renewed faith that he could participate in activities he enjoyed before the injury. Although he stayed in shape and worked hard during two years of physical therapy, he struggled with using the legs for the first three years and mostly walked using canes.
Amos had returned to the Wichita area after a 10-year career and medical retirement from the Marines in 2013. Like others in his situation, he figured that was as good as it was going to get until in 2014, he met Steve Peeples, an orthotist and prosthetist who owns Peeples Prosthetics in Wichita.
Because Peeples makes its sockets in-house, they were able to refine Amos’ until he could walk comfortably on his prosthetic legs.
“That’s opened up what I’m able to do,” said Amos, ticking off some of his accomplishments that wouldn’t have been possible, such as a once-in-a-lifetime wild bighorn sheep hunt in 2018 that required hiking mountains and mesas in New Mexico.
He believed so strongly in what Peeples was doing to help amputees live with their injuries that he joined the company in 2015 as director of patient relations. He’s still in that role of mentoring patients, and Peeples has become a volunteer with WWO.
Witnessing others have the same aha moment he had on his Adventure Enabled is rewarding for Amos. He tells the story of leading a completely blind bilateral amputee Marine in taking down two hogs. He shares details of a trip when another blind Marine shot two quail-dove out of the sky, something the warrior didn’t think was possible.
That success leads the warriors to open up and fully participate in the group, then take that confidence home.
Sometimes it’s not until Amos and other volunteers receive the thank you notes from the warriors that they realize what an impact the WWO experience had.
“For some, you read their letter and realize that they were actually at the end of their rope and being around other warriors actually saved their life,” Amos said. “That’s ultimately why we do what we do. We believe that the outdoor therapy you’re going to get is better than anything you’ll get in a hospital type setting.”
Learn more about Wounded Warrior Outdoors at woundedwarrioroutdoors.com.