Sheep Dog Impact Assistance grew out of a natural disaster. But it also had a secondary effect: Giving veterans a second calling.
This past summer, I got the chance to spend some time on the water with a group of veterans from an organization called Sheep Dog Impact Assistance (SDIA) who came fishing with me as a guest on our Anglers Journal TV series. They joined us in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, as we shot an episode chasing striped bass in Long Island Sound near the mouth of the Connecticut River.
One main focus of the group is to host outdoor adventures for other disabled vets and first responders. These activities include skydiving, hunting and fishing, canoeing or rafting, obstacle races and even Spartan races, a high-intensity version of an obstacle race that offers extreme physical challenges to participants.
SDIA grew out of a natural disaster. As Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast with Category 5 winds in late August 2005, millions of Americans sat glued to their televisions watching the resulting catastrophe in disbelief. Many of us wondered what we could do to help, but felt powerless to provide assistance in any meaningful way.
One such American was a young Marine Corps sergeant named Lance Nutt, who was at his home in Arkansas on leave from a tour of duty in Iraq as the monster storm hit. “I had just come home from a tough deployment in ’03 and ’04,” Nutt says, “and I just remember sitting and yelling at the TV, wondering why no one seemed to be doing anything to help.”
Nutt suddenly realized that he was sitting there complaining about the situation, but not actually doing anything about it, so he made a decision. “I got up, and I did it.” He enlisted the help of his father, a former military officer, and a close friend, a cop and former Marine. The three of them loaded supplies into a truck and headed for Pass Christian, Mississippi.
They dropped off supplies at the local fire station, one of the few buildings left standing in Pass Christian after the massive tidal surge subsided. Then they got to work distributing the remaining supplies directly to people in need. They helped elderly people, handicapped folks and even children who had no other assistance to rely on.
This seemingly small effort spawned a profound concept in Nutt’s mind. He began to visualize an organization that would provide help to those in need during times of natural disasters (impact assistance), and also support the people who protect all of us on a daily basis, from military personnel to first responders like policemen and firefighters, among others.
“We’re here to assist the men and women who are willing to lay down their lives for the rest of us. This is a special breed of individual, like firefighters who are willing to run into a burning building. We attempt to explain to people what defines these ‘sheep dogs,’ and help get them to appreciate [these professionals] for what they are and what they do for us.”
The SDIA team now has three key missions: disaster response, outdoor adventures and holiday assistance. Disaster assistance needs little explanation but has expanded dramatically in scope since that first trip to post-Katrina Mississippi. SDIA now regularly assists in natural disasters—covering damaged roofs, for instance, clearing downed trees and distributing much-needed food and water. “One of our favorite slogans is, ‘Get off the couch,’” Nutt says. “We use that as a hashtag, and it basically is our way of encouraging sheep dogs who may need help to come with us, get out of the house and experience something new.” Nutt says that while they have gotten busy helping others, he has come to learn an important life lesson: “Helping is healing,” he says.
For many of the Sheep Dogs, sitting around together waiting for fish to bite is a rare opportunity to breathe easily, talk about the challenges of returning to civilian life and embrace healthy competition. It’s a form of therapy.