The American Legion’s Operation Comfort Warriors (OCW) was established to provide military personnel recovering in Department of Defense (DoD) medical facilities with items not provided by the federal government: fitness equipment, video games, iPods and other items to help pass the time while they heal.
OCW’s mission has since been expanded to delivering similar items to veterans in Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities, as well as individuals who were wounded while in service but have since left the military.
Also receiving OCW assistance are multiple nonprofits to also provide therapeutic and leisure activities to both active-duty military and veterans. In 2022 alone, more than $44,000 was provided in OCW grants to three nonprofits that use activities such as video gaming and whitewater rafting to assist veterans.
And, most recently, OCW was able to provide a local chapter of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF) with $20,000, which will allow the chapter to take a trip to Sibley Lake in Wyoming’s Bighorn National Forest.
Project Healing Waters provides military personnel recovering in DoD hospitals and Warrior Transition Units, and veterans receiving care from VA medical centers and clinics with therapeutic outdoor recreation through the sport of fly fishing.
The beneficiary of the grant was the Rapid City chapter of PHWFF, which is headed up by Program Lead Josh Osterbur. Legionnaire Courtney Steffen – a member of Arthur T. Peterson Post 136 in Chester, S.D., and a service officer in the Brookings County Veterans Service Office – met Osterbur through Facebook and was advised by mutual friends to look into the work he was doing through PHWFF. She eventually began recommending veterans to Osterbur to go through his program.
Osterbur later reached out to Steffen when he was doing a fundraising auction and asked if she could help publicize the event. She did, which caught the eye of Doug Chace, the OCW coordinator at American Legion National Headquarters. Chace suggested to Steffen to apply for an OCW grant on behalf of Project Healing Waters, which required little coaxing on his part.
“I love the Operation Comfort Warriors program,” Steffen said. “And getting veterans outdoors is therapeutic in and of itself. And then having your battle buddies around you, I would think it cathartic. The Black Hills area, where Josh is located, is quite possibly the most beautiful part of South Dakota. Getting veterans connected to that … forming a community, it’s really impactful in that regard.
“I put Josh in contact with Doug. And there laid the idea. It was cool to watch it happen.”
Osterbur, a U.S. Air Force combat veteran who was medically retired in 2014, said his VA therapist directed him to Project Healing Waters initially in 2021; when the program lead for the Rapid City chapter left, Osterbur took over the position.
“It allows me to give back to my brothers and sisters,” Osterbur said of the work he does. “It’s just good to see people smile and get out of their heads for a while.”
The $20,000 check was presented March 30 during the Rapid City Rush hockey game, where Osterbur was the Hero of the Game. American Legion Department of South Dakota Commander Doug Feltman was on hand to present the check to Osterbur, who said the donation provided him with a sigh of relief.
“Honestly, for me, it took a lot of pressure off of me trying to come up with different fundraisers and things like that,” he said. “It means a lot, because a lot of these (PHWFF) participants haven’t left this local area in a very long time. They get to do something that they normally wouldn’t get a chance to do.”