Standing on the backside of the bass pond at the Black Rifle Coffee Company Ranch near San Antonio, Texas, the 7-foot foam Sasquatch target was laser-ranged at 106 yards. We were halfway through the 15-target Veteran Adaptive Athlete Shoot, or VAAS, an annual event to bring together military service members physically modified by war.
“I can hit it,” said Kyle Herman, a former combat controller in the Air Force, who picked up archery the day before and only had pins in his sight as far out as 60 yards; so far, he had displayed a natural talent for hitting the targets in the groin.
“See that branch about 6 feet above the Sasquatch’s head?” asked Caleb Brewer, a former Green Beret with the 19th Special Forces Group. “Hold on that.”
Herman drew back and sent it. The arrow climbed up and over the pond and vanished into the sun and blue sky. We then heard that telltale sound of carbon hitting foam. Thunk.
“Yeaaaah!” Team 9 erupted into yells and laughs, and applause. High fives and fist bumps went around.
“Hey,” someone said. “You didn’t shoot him in the dick.” We all broke into laughs again.
By the end of the shoot, some of us rubbed our cheeks and jawlines. Our faces hurt from laughing so much.
Evan Hafer, Black Rifle Coffee Company CEO, Logan Stark, Vice President of Media, and John Dudley of Nock On Archery started VAAS as a means to get veterans into archery after watching an adaptive athlete on two blade prosthetics crush the Total Archery Challenge course in Park City, Utah, in 2019.
In 2020, at the first VAAS held in Salt Lake, 20 shooters showed up. Most of them had to be fitted for archery tackle for the first time. In 2021, at the BRCC Ranch, there were 38 shooters. This year, 72 signed up, but since friends brought friends, more like 80 or 90 people shot the course.
Ask any target archer or bowhunter and they’ll tell you there’s something therapeutic about shooting a bow. Several veteran groups have picked up on this and have made archery a central part of their programming. But more than that, events like VAAS provide a space for the veteran community to come together — dick jokes and all.
“Guys who have been physically altered by war, you guys continue to inspire me to do better: better as a CEO, as a better father, better as a husband — my wife would probably debate that. But every day, it’s an always and present thought: How can I give back? How can I help out everybody, the entire community?” Hafer said at the opening of this year’s event.
“Guys like Clint Trial came out to us right after his injury, and instantly I felt like he was my brother; he is my brother. What I wanted to do was embrace him and give him a family that loves and supports each other through all the highs and all the lows,” Hafer continued. “And if I can do that multiple times, we can amplify this effect. Then we’re doing our job. It’s not coffee; that’s fucking brown caffeinated water. We turn that stuff into these special moments. We connect each other. We bind each other. We build something incredibly moving.”
Archery at Black Rifle has become a conduit for so much more.
Clint Trial was a US Marine working in the special operations community when he stepped on an IED in Afghanistan in January 2019. After a long in-patient stint at Walter Reed, he and his wife looked at moving to Texas. Hafer heard he’d be in town and invited him to visit The Ranch.
“It was me, my wife, all four owners of BRCC, and Tim Montana,” Trial said. “We hung out by the pond and fished. All they talked about was how they can help veterans, so being able to see it start as an idea, to where it’s grown now is really, really cool.”
Plans for the first VAAS were underway then, and they talked about it and other projects to help vets while catching bass.
“This is that proof that BRCC does what it says,” said Trial, who now works for the company. “This is the proof these guys don’t just spout out hot air but put their money where their mouth is. And not just cash dollars, but what they created is a community to come together and hang out and enjoy each other’s company. That has a price tag you can’t just buy or replicate.”
Jay Fain, Executive Director of the BRCC Fund, lost a leg to an EFP in Baghdad in 2007 while with the infantry. He shot a bow for the first time at the first VAAS and thought, “That was awesome.”
Fain said the problem with many veteran events is they can turn into a “dog and pony show” and can fast devolve into cliquishness.
“Here, at VAAS,” he said, “there are no reservations. No one is better than anyone, and you just meet awesome people — someone who raided a hotel in Africa or lost the ability to move their whole body blown up in Afghanistan, or someone without that experience who means well and wants to help. Everyone is on the same level.”
Beyond the community and camaraderie, there’s the archery factor.
“Archery is all a mental game,” Fain said. “If you’re not in the right headspace before releasing that arrow into foam, you will miss. Then there are all these little things you need to learn just to get to that point. It translates to the real world. The little things matter.”
This year’s event kicked off with a meet-and-greet dinner at The Kendall in Boerne, Texas, for 144 shooters, guests, and friends. The day before the shoot, seasoned shooters like paralympic athletes Lia Coryell, Eric “Trainwreck” Burkett, and Jason Tabansky answered questions from new shooters and helped sight-in bows alongside big names in archery like Nock On’s Dudley, bowhunter Remi Warren, and Total Archery Challenge founder Sean DeGrey.
“It’s like an awesome rock concert; it’s hard to say why it’s so awesome, but when you feel the energy, you know,” Dudley said after the event. “It’s all these positive vibes from people who caught the shitty end of the stick. Through archery, these people got a new mission and a new sense of purpose, and it solidifies so much of what I love about the community.”
The BRCC Fund purchased PSE bows for the new shooters. Eberlestock, Kill Cliff, Protek, Crye Precision, Total Archery Challange, VRB Labs, Archery Country, Montana Knife Company, War Fighter Tabacco, and Grizzlies Brand chipped in with gear and schwag to help get everyone shooting. “We couldn’t do this without them,” said Dan Horgan, Director of Special Projects, Black Rifle Coffee, who helped organize the event.
Brewer was a Green Beret in the 19th Group when, on his 31st birthday, he stepped on a pressure plate in a doorway in Helmand Province and lost both legs. He has found a new calling through events like this and archery.
“I spent 11 years in the military and was going career,” he said after the event. “That was taken away in a split second. At the peak of my game, at the tip of the spear, it was taken away. I had a hard time finding a new sense of purpose and belonging. Now I believe everything happens for a reason.”
Last year he opened up a bow shop in Tuscon, Stick Sniper.
“The biggest thing isn’t the archery, but the community around it,” he said. “A lot of people get out [of the military] and feel sidelined cause they don’t have a mission anymore. I saw it this year. I met some new people who were hesitant, withdrawn. They get with their team and shoot the course, and you can see the change. They’re rejuvenated. They get this sense that the time after the military won’t be as dark as they thought it would be.”
After most of us had shot at the Sasquatch target, Brewer sat down and sent a long bomb over the pond.
Thunk. The whole group erupted into cheers.
Herman, who had his binos up, waited for us to settle down.
“Well,” he said, “you shot him right in the dick.”