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Operation Freedom Safari

It’s about when SCI made history by being the first organization to sponsor a special hunt for a wounded warrior.

Terms like “first,” “best” and “greatest” are used commonly to describe Safari Club International and its members. It has been that way since the beginning.

            As SCI celebrates its 50th Anniversary, it is fitting to recall one of the many times that SCI was first with the best.

            These days, all manner of organizations host special hunts for combat veterans, including many SCI Chapters. This is both outstanding and admirable.

            However, once upon a time there was the first-ever such hunt for a wounded warrior and SCI was an integral part of it.

The event was called Operation Freedom Safari, held in August 2006 in Botswana where Joe Tormala, a former staff sergeant who had served in both the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army, was hosted to a safari in Botswana at the Sukses and Matlou Ranches owned by SCI members Eric and Oksana Sparks of Tucson, Arizona USA.

            Operation Freedom Safari was one of many turning points in Tormala’s life. It literally helped him clear his mind. He has described that experience as part of a transition for him – an event that helped pull him out of a “deep, dark place.”

            Joe retired from military service due to 14 combat wounds received in action in Iraq on Christmas 2003. He lost six friends while serving in Iraq and saw 21 wounded during his time in service. Joe has been to over 35 countries, completed seven overseas deployments, and served in four deployments to combat/hostile fire zones during his career.

            Joe Tormala was awarded the Purple Heart for 14 combat wounds received in combat on Christmas 2003 where he lost his friends SSGT Tom Christensen and SSGT Steve Hattamer, who were killed in an enemy mortar attack on their Platoon Headquarters. Four other soldiers were also wounded in the attack with him.

            “It was hard for me to allow myself to enjoy anything – hunting and the outdoors helped me regain peace and purpose,”Tormala said while explaining what Operation Freedom Safari has meant for him. “It was hard for me to allow myself to live and enjoy anything.”

            Since Operation Freedom Safari, Joe is doing well now in Michigan’s Northern Peninsula where, when he is not involved in military veteran-related efforts, finds time to go hunting an enjoy life with his family.

            Most recently, Joe was appointed as National Americanism Officer for the Military Order of the Purple Heart. In that role, he coordinates and reports on patriotic activities, American history presentations and American literature distribution to schools and institutions nationwide.

            Joe is married to Sheila and they have a daughter Katrina. Sheila and Katrina both have master’s degrees and own and operate an accounting firm in Houghton, Michigan.

In Joe’s and Sheila’s free time, living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, they enjoy the wilderness and fishing for trout, salmon, panfish and pike in its many streams, and inland lakes, including Lake Superior.

They also enjoy deer hunting with bow, muzzleloader and rifle, as well as ice fishing during the winter — often hosting Veterans in their outdoor adventures over the past 26 years.

            Joe believes that staying away from the negative effects and consequences of alcohol and drug use gives a veteran the best chance of recovery from combat stress and a purpose filled life after the military.

“All forms of work, volunteering and hobbies are purpose and are critical in rehabilitation from wounds or injuries,” he said. “We must continue moving forward in life; always improvising, adapting and overcoming our disabilities to rediscover our strengths and abilities. Through this process we learn to reengage, rehabilitate, and recover. Our God is an awesome God, and he restores the body, mind and spirit of those who seek Him.”–Steve Comus

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