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Comrades in cooking: BBQ Bootcamp draws veterans and law enforcement from across Midwest to Eagle Bend – Wadena Pioneer Journal

EAGLE BEND, Minn. – Dennis Flaherty, of North Branch, Minn., Knows what it’s like to be spit on by those opposing his serving the country in the Vietnam War.

He also knows that he served the country so that people living here could have the freedom to speak their mind, even in opposition to his views.

Getting harassed at home was just part of the troubles Flaherty went through after he served overseas. He was involved in traumatic things that only other veterans could relate to. That’s why spending time with those men and women becomes much needed medicine for him.

“Sometimes you get lost in your own head,” Flaherty said on Saturday, April 30, on Central Street in Eagle Bend during the annual BBQ Bootcamp hosted by Hometown Heroes Outdoors (HHO). It’s an event specifically open to veterans and law enforcement as a way to give back for all they’ve given.

This event brought out over 50 service men and women that had the opportunity to learn about making the perfect steak, trimming and smoking a brisket, cooking ribs, and seasoning chicken thighs. The group moved between four different competition barbecue trailers learning from men and women who travel the country as part of the Kansas City Barbecue Society. Many attend 10-12 competitions a year honing their skills and eating famous barbecue. The event is stationed in the center of town, but is fenced off from the public. This is an event for those who serve and for them only.

Not only do the attendees watch the techniques, they feast on several tables filled with the treats when the learning is over.

“I never knew anything about any of these groups until I met that guy,” Flaherty said of a friend who introduced him to HHO about a year ago. Up until then, he, like many veterans and officers who have been through traumatic experiences, was struggling to find people to help him keep his mind straight – especially after the death of his brother several years ago.

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A cold drizzle didn’t drown the spirits too much for those attending the 2022 BBQ Bootcamp in Eagle Bend. Trailers full of smokers, grills and full kitchens lined the streets but the occasion was only open to veterans, law enforcement and emergency workers.

Michael Johnson / Pioneer Journal

“That was my person,” Flaherty said of his brother – someone he could talk about about things going through his head.

Now he is setting up a network of friends he can engage with and do some pretty amazing things with. For him, and what’s becoming a network of over 10,000 people, they have a life-saving resource that in some cases gives them a reason to keep looking forward to tomorrow.

HHO sets up hunting, fishing and outdoors events like once in a lifetime elk hunts, goose shoots, and fishing outings in incredible locations around the country.

Steve “Borgy” Weishair started the local BBQ Bootcamp event in 2019 in his hometown of Eagle Bend. The first year brought out about 20-25 people; in 2021 they grew to eight teams and about 35 veterans; 2022 welcomed 50 guests and 11 Kansas City teams plus a world champion steak chef from Lakeville, Minn.

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Alan Larrimore, secretary of Hometown Heroes Outdoors and Staples, Minn. resident, prepares chicken wraps for the grill on Saturday, April 30, 2022.

Michael Johnson / Pioneer Journal

Borgy was known for his knowledge of meat due to his background in working with meat companies and now for Mason Brothers in Wadena. Mason Brothers is the primary sponsor of the event. Borgy has a strong military background in his family and he has served on the local fire department for many years. He humbly claims he’s not a great barbecue chef. His barbecue awards would disagree with that.

“We’ve got these guys out there and we don’t know how their struggles go from day to day,” Weishair said. He recalls getting a letter after the first event from one attendee who said that the event helped turn his life around.

Weishair is helped out extensively by other Eagle Bend fire department members.

The event has become a point of great joy for Alan Larrimore, of Staples, Minn. Larrimore volunteered to be a judge in a previous event and vowed he’d be back the next year to barbecue. He’s since traveled to Kansas City and earned first place for his ribs in the backyard division. He’s now secretary for the Hometown Heroes Outdoors board of directors.
Larrimore said HHO stared in Minnesota in 2017. They’ve now grown to 26 states and are powered by volunteers serving the 501 (c) 3.
Larrimore and his wife come from active duty Air Force backgrounds. He said he got involved because it’s something he believes is important.
Daniel Meyer, president and co-founder of Hometown Heroes Outdoors was busy helping and promoting the event on Saturday. He said what Hometown Heros Outdoors has done is provide an outlet for those exiting the military and brings back the camaraderie that they need in their daily lives. The group has a website and social media pages, where they expand their reach to over 11,000 members that can seek help from one another at any time they need. From almost every trip they go on they hear from someone who said the gathering saved their lives or helped save their family relationships.

When someone reaches out for help, “within minutes you’ve got a hundred plus people that comment on there,” offering help, Meyer said.

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Rib tips serve as an appetizer out on the street in Eagle Bend as guests learn tips on cooking the perfect steak, chicken thighs and ribs.

Michael Johnson / Pioneer Journal

“Getting outdoors isn’t all about catching the biggest fish, shooting the biggest deer, it’s about the connection made though that. It’s our way of getting somebody to relax, taking their minds off whatever struggles they’re going through, ”Meyers said.

The group was able to get over 1,200 veterans or law enforcement officers outside their events last year. Each outing offers that chance to forget about struggles of life and reconnect with others that have been there.

Flaherty found out about Hometown Heroes Outdoors just over a year ago and has now filled his calendar up for months hoping to stay so busy with his comrades that his mind can remain fixed on the good things life has to offer.

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