DULUTH -- Travis Birr finally got home to Minnesota on Sunday night after a 10-month Army Reserve deployment in the Middle East. He was looking forward to a little quality time outdoors — fishing, camping and riding his mountain bike.

But Monday morning, when he opened the door to the storage unit in Carlton where all of his outdoor gear had been waiting, his heart sank.

“Half the unit was empty. … They took my 9:Zero:7 custom-made fat bike. My mountain bike. My bow and all my arrows and all my hunting gear. … They took all my fishing rods and my ice fishing gear and my Hummingbird" depth finder, Birr said Monday, just hours after his discovery.

Birr had a second unit at the same storage facility filled with household goods and clothing.

Travis Birr. (Contributed photo)
Travis Birr. (Contributed photo)

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“They left that one alone and took all the fun stuff,” he noted.

All told, Birr estimates the thieves got away with nearly $10,000 worth of outdoor gear. He reported the theft to the Carlton County Sheriff’s Office. Deputies told him there have been other storage unit break-ins in recent months.

Some of the stuff might be insured, Birr said, but he’s not sure how much.

The theft came as a second gut-punch since he was deployed: Birr’s Labrador retriever, Riley, died while he was overseas after suffering from bone cancer.

“My first thought was, ‘Welcome home. Your dog is dead and your stuff is stolen. … Thanks for your service,’” Birr said.

Birr, 41, grew up in Michigan but has lived in Duluth since 2016. He works as a respiratory therapist at St. Luke’s hospital in Duluth when he’s not serving as a combat medic for the Duluth-based 477th Medical Ambulance unit of the U.S. Army Reserves. He had most recently been stationed in Kuwait, assigned to a Texas-based medical unit, dealing with COVID-19 issues among his fellow soldiers. He was coming home with plans to take an outdoor-themed road trip to Oregon, Washington and Montana to do some fishing and scout some fall hunting spots for the nonprofit veterans service group he helped found, Veteran Outdoor Ventures.

“Now I have to make an expensive shopping trip to Cabela's before I go,’’ Birr said with a laugh.

Birr was the guy who wore 25 pounds of Army body armor while running (and finishing) the 2017 Grandma's Marathon. He did that to raise awareness for a group dedicated to thwarting veteran suicides, Operation: 23 to Zero. (The number 23 comes from a Department of Veteran Affairs study estimating that 22 veterans and one service member die by suicide every day.)

Now, Birr and his friend John Yankowiak of Duluth have founded Veteran Outdoor Ventures, which guides veterans on hunting and fishing trips.

“I had to take a break from 23 to Zero because it was so emotionally exhausting,” Birr said. “But Veteran Outdoor Ventures is really aimed at the same thing, helping veterans heal. … You know that, when you are out fishing or in the blind hunting, you’re enjoying the moment and not thinking about your troubles. That’s what we're aiming for.”

Travis Birr training for Grandma's Marathon in 2017 when he wore full body armor to raise awareness for efforts to prevent suicide among veterans. ( Steve Kuchera / News Tribune / file )
Travis Birr training for Grandma's Marathon in 2017 when he wore full body armor to raise awareness for efforts to prevent suicide among veterans. ( Steve Kuchera / News Tribune / file )

Birr will get back from his trip and re-start work at St. Luke’s on July 1. He hopes to apply for official nonprofit status for Veteran Outdoor Ventures later this year.

“We’ll take any veteran, doesn’t matter what their status is, and get them out hunting or fishing,’’ he said, noting the organization lets him combine his two passions: The outdoors and serving veterans in need.

Meanwhile, Kelly Costa-Daly saw Birr’s brief Facebook post about having his gear stolen and she immediately sprang into action, organizing a GoFundMe fundraiser for people to donate to replace Birr’s gear.

As of Thursday morning the effort had raised more than $3,600.

Costa-Daly, of Maplewood, met Birr when her son, Joel, a Duluth-based National Guardsman, died in 2017. Birr called her as part of his volunteer work with Operation: 23 to Zero.

“My son died by suicide in February, 2017 … and ever since then Travis, this person we didn’t know at all before that, has been there any time when my family needed someone,’’ she said. “I knew he would be mad about the GoFundMe thing, but too bad. … Travis is just one of those genuinely good human beings. And maybe it took something bad like this (theft) for him to find out how many people love him.”

Birr said he would never ask for anyone's help replacing his outdoor gear, but he vows to spend any money raised to buy stuff that he can use on Veteran Outdoor Ventures trips.

“If it helps get us going again,” Birr said. “Then I guess it’s OK.”

How to help

If you’d like to donate to help Travis Birr buy new outdoors gear to replace what was stolen while he was deployed overseas, go to gofundme.com and search for Travis Birr. You can donate with a credit card.

Veteran Outdoor Ventures

For more information on Veteran Outdoor Ventures, or to find out how to book a trip or make a donation, go to facebook.com/veteranoutdoorventures or email veteranoutdoorventures@gmail.com.

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