In 2013, Union Pacific locomotive engineer Dave Oder and four of his buddies wanted to find a way to help disabled veterans in the St. Louis area.
The five friends decided to pool their money – $100 a piece – to buy rods and reels for a daylong fishing adventure with five disabled veterans. The event was in collaboration with Camp Valor Outdoors, a Missouri-based nonprofit that provides support for wounded veterans across the nation, offering outdoor adventures in 21 states.
Today, the fishing trip that Oder and his buddies organized 10 years ago has grown into the Tournament of Warriors, a three-day event in May hosted by members of the UPVETS’ St. Louis chapter where disabled veterans from across the country gather each year to connect, heal and catch a laugh or, maybe, an actual fish.
UPVETS is one of Union Pacific’s nine Employee Resource Groups, which are employee-led organizations that promote a diverse and inclusive workplace.
“Vets want to help other vets,” said Oder, locomotive engineer, who served as president of the UPVETS’ St. Louis chapter for seven years. “We feel fortunate to have the jobs we have. Not everyone has jobs like ours at Union Pacific — a lot of veterans have difficulty being able to transition back to civilian life.”
Oder served in the National Guard and Reserve for eight years after high school, worked in law enforcement for 13 years, then joined Union Pacific as a locomotive engineer about 17 years ago. He enjoys his job, in large part, because of the people he gets to work with, the opportunity to travel and, of course, the paycheck. Oder’s route runs from Dupo, Illinois, to Jefferson City, Missouri, which means he is away from home for 36 to 48 hours at a time. But he doesn’t mind the travel or long hours. He likes life on the rails.
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UPVETS is an added benefit that offers Oder and other veterans the opportunity to connect with those who served in the U.S. military. It gives Oder a chance to connect and help other veterans in the community, one of the great passions of his life.
The St. Louis chapter of UPVETS is one of the company’s most active chapters with more than 100 members, and the Tournament of Warriors is their biggest event of the year.
“The St. Louis chapter is one of our shining stars,” said Aaron Dwuznik, Intermodal Pricing Manager-Marketing and Sales, and a former Omaha-based UPVETS president. “The Tournament of Warriors is pretty significant. It’s a great event. The camaraderie that comes from the tournament is both unique and special.”
This year’s event will be held May 3-5 at S bar F Scout Ranch, a 6,000-acre facility with a 500-acre lake, in Farmington, Missouri. A total of 10 disabled vets from across the country attend. Many of them served during wartime, including WWII, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf Wars. During the three-day event, the vets will participate in a bass fishing tournament, a crappie fishing tournament, and a shooting competition, among other activities.
The veterans who participate in the program do so free of charge thanks to $15,000 of sponsorship money raised by UPVETS members, with the help of local VFW organizations and donations from community members in Farmington, Missouri, and the surrounding area.
While the activities provide an opportunity to be outside and learn new things, the veterans who attend benefit the most from the friendships that develop.
“From what we’ve experienced, veterans need to be around like-minded people — they shouldn’t be isolated,” Oder said. “When a veteran sits inside by himself, his mind can go crazy because of everything he’s not doing and everything that has happened. By talking with people, they can talk about some of the things they’re struggling with and make a connection.”
Approximately 50 UPVETS members volunteer at the event every year, many of whom are craft professionals like Oder who work on train crew, locomotive repair or the car shop from the St. Louis UPVETS chapter. However, some UPVETS members from UP Center in Omaha, Nebraska, like Dwuznik travel to Missouri to help at the event as well.
“The Tournament of Warriors is a way for all of us to connect and to continue to support our military and military families in the community,” Dwuznik said. “For veterans, there is a comradery that comes with talking to people who have had similar experiences. The stories they come back with and the breakthroughs they have from this event is the most important aspect of it.”