Vets finds camaraderie amid nature

Washougal native named state team lead for The Fallen Outdoors, a nonprofit focused on connecting veterans, active-duty service members through outdoor trips

Contributed photo courtesy of Amy McNealy Former Washougal resident Amy McNealy (center) leads an elk-hunting expedition as part of her work with The Fallen Outdoors, a nonprofit organization that facilitates hunting and fishing trips for military veterans.

Washougal resident Keith Hyde (right) leads a salmon fishing expedition as part of his work with The Fallen Outdoors, a nonprofit organization that facilitates hunting and fishing trips for military veterans. (Contributed photo courtesy of Amy McNealy)

Two years ago, Washougal native Amy McNealy found herself at a crossroads. Her 20-year marriage was over, her children were grown, she had lost her military dependent status and she didn’t know exactly how to move forward. She felt empty inside, and longed to find new, meaningful connections.

“I was left with gaps in my life,” said McNealy, who grew up in Washougal, graduated from Washougal High School and now lives in Trout Lake. “I was struggling to find my path.”

One day, she came across a Facebook post advertising a fishing trip through The Fallen Outdoors, a nonprofit organization that facilitates outdoor trips for military veterans and active-duty service members.

McNealy, an avid outdoorswoman and former United States Navy hull-maintenance technician, expressed an interest in the trip and was one of about 50 people selected for the event at the Yale Reservoir on North Fork Lewis River at the border of Clark and Cowlitz counties.

McNealy caught a large number of kokanee salmon that day, but more importantly, she said, she found the fulfillment and purpose she had been lacking. Since then, The Fallen Outdoors has been a major part of her life.

“I was the only girl who showed up and didn’t know a single soul, (but) they just embraced me,” said McNealy, who served in the Navy from 1992 to 1997. “It was very safe and comfortable — the jokes about the different branches, the razzing, stuff that I really needed at that point in my life. Instantly, I was a part of this community that I needed. From then on, it was an automatic thing that became part of my life.”

Six months later, The Fallen Outdoors appointed McNealy secretary for the organization’s Washington state team. The organization promoted her again in January, this time making McNealy The Fallen Outdoors’ first female state team lead.

“This is an amazing opportunity for me,” said McNealy, who works as a senior talent acquisition specialist for CareerBuilder. “I feel really good to be in this position, and I’m excited and ready for the challenge.”

McNealy leads more than 40 volunteer staff members who organize trips and solicit donations and sponsors. They announce a trip on their Facebook page and randomly select a certain number of participants from the people who respond to the post.

In 2020, The Fallen Outdoors’ Washington group facilitated 151 fishing and hunting trips for about 1,000 veterans in a variety of locations, including Clark County.

“All of the trips are free for the veterans,” said Keith Hyde, a Washougal resident and Fallen Outdoors staff member. “We provide the boat, the tackle, the bait, everything. All they have to do is get themselves there.”

The trips are designed to assist veterans, many of whom are living with physical and mental ailments, transition back to civilian life by offering a “safe space” that allows them to open up about their struggles.

“Obviously, it’s been proven time and time again that the outdoors are good for the soul,” McNealy said. “Being in the outdoors helps veterans cope with the anxiety, post traumatic stress syndrome and trauma that they can be experiencing. They just relax and really kind of enjoy the moment. I would say 100 percent that we’ve saved lives. We may have veterans that are in a really great place in their lives that are able to support and assist those veterans that are maybe experiencing some really tough times.”

Hyde, who led 37 fishing expeditions in 2020, said the need for the organization’s services is “overwhelming,” and pointed to the fact that a single Facebook post usually elicits hundreds of comments from people interested in going on a trip.

“It’s astounding to see the impact that (The Fallen Outdoors) has on veterans,” said Hyde, who served in the United States Air Force and the Air National Guard from 1977 to 1984 and retired from his position as a police officer for the city of Vancouver in 2015. “Easily, twice a week a veteran will post on Facebook something like, ‘You don’t know me, but I was on the brink. I didn’t know where to turn. I didn’t know what I was going to do. But I went duck hunting with so-and-so, and I had a fantastic time, and (the trip) showed me that people really care.'” Some of them say, ‘You saved my life. You really turned things around for me.'”

Brian Crandall, a Vancouver resident and Fallen Outdoors member, has been on “80 or 90” fishing trips with the group in the past seven years.

“When I got out of the service, I had a hard time initially adjusting to civilian life. A lot of the things I did in the Army didn’t translate to the real world,” said Crandall, who served as a member of the U.S. Army for seven years in the 1980s and currently works as a nurse for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Portland Health Care System in Vancouver.

“The Fallen Outdoors sends people in that direction and gives them a common thing that they can all gather around. They’ll be out on a boat for eight hours with strangers they’ve never met, and by the end of it they’re telling stories about their service time, where they went and the conflicts they were involved in. They really open up to each other.”

Hyde and Crandall agree the group offers veterans a sense of camaraderie that they can’t easily find outside the military.

“It’s not about catching fish,” Hyde said. “It’s about developing relationships, putting men and women in touch with each other, letting them know that they’re not alone, that there are other people going through the same things they are going through, that people care about them and that they can feel comfortable and enjoy themselves and set aside their everyday worries. Catching a fish is a bonus.”

Out of the shadows

McNealy is used to being the only female in a group of males.

“I credit that to growing up with three brothers,” she said, laughing.

While in the Navy, she often found herself as the only woman in a room or on a particular assignment. She even became one of the first females to serve aboard a Navy combatant ship.

She believes those experiences will help her in her current role.

“I tend to be comfortable in that position where I have the opportunity to show up and lead and have an impact,” McNealy said. “(The military and the outdoors) are two areas where there’s typically not a lot of females, especially in leadership type positions, so I feel very grateful that they’ve entrusted me with that opportunity. I’m hoping that it will kind of set the course for more women to get involved in the outdoors, and in particular female veterans.”

McNealy has worked diligently to encourage more female veterans to get involved with The Fallen Outdoors. When she first started out with the group, she noticed that she was usually one of the only women at events.

“I started working on organizing all-female trips because the source of the trauma or concerns that female veterans might have comes from a different source than male veterans, and they feel safe at times with those female veteran events,” McNealy said. “If I can get the women out on a women-only trip, they go and they do it and then guess what? There’s a trip that’s put out with guys, and they go. They’re OK, because they know that it’s safe and we’ve got their back.”

McNealy said “pulling the female veterans out of the shadows” is one of her proudest accomplishments.

“We’ve seen a large influx in the state of Washington with our female veteran participation,” she said. “Our first (female-only event) was a fly-fishing clinic, and I struggled to find four women to show up. Since then, we’ve done waterfowl trips, fishing trips and a deer camp. The first year that I (put on our annual) fishing tournament, there were three female veterans participating. Last year we had 43.”

“Amy saw that there was a whole cadre of female veterans in this area that were basically underserved, and she pioneered (an effort) to get (their) comfort level up and introduce them to TFO,” Hyde said. “Once that pressure goes away, they can be themselves, and that’s been huge. Now I’m seeing many more females on trips, and for me, that’s a great thing. It’s needed, and I encourage it.”

McNealy works as hard as she does for The Fallen Outdoors because she looks at it as a second family, filled with people that she knows that she can count on no matter what.

“I can say with the utmost confidence that (The Fallen Outdoors) absolutely has changed my life personally,” she said. “I’m very grateful for that.”