Todd Dunlap, a 2017 Big Hearts under the Big Sky trip participant, says overlooking Paradise Valley during an elk hunt last fall was so incredible it was almost unreal.
“It’s postcard material, and you’re actually standing there, living a postcard moment.”
Dunlap’s enlisted military career spans 24 years. An electronic warfare and cryptology specialist, he completed seven tours to Iraq and the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and other efforts. He was also twice deployed to South America to assist the Drug Enforcement Administration with counter-narcotics work in Columbia and Ecuador.
Being gone for nine months at a time was hard, but coming home—although he was eager to—brought its own challenges, not least of which was readjusting to the pace of civilian life. “The adrenaline and tempo that you have on deployment is obviously through the roof with the amount of attention and focus that you have to have on a daily basis,” he said. The initial transition, during which he would sometimes only get two hours of sleep a night, could be rough on his family.
Dunlap’s final deployment prior to his retirement happened almost immediately after his wife gave birth to their daughter Madison. He flew from San Diego to Iraq just six days after Madison was born. “That’s one of the toughest things that you’d ever have to do—hand over your newborn to your wife and jump on a plane not knowing what tomorrow brings,” he said. “That was a pretty tough day.”
In 2008, Dunlap retired as a Master Chief Petty Officer, the highest enlisted rank in the Navy. Immediately after his retirement from the Navy, Dunlap began serving Veterans in Montana with the Montana Veterans Authority, where his peers know him as a consummate professional and subject matter expert.
Dunlap travels all across the state helping veterans and their family members navigate the complex VA system. He’s based out of Fort Harrison, but it’s not uncommon for him to travel four days a week.
Thus, the Dunlaps were deeply appreciative for an opportunity to reconnect this fall at the Mountain Sky Guest Ranch southwest of Emigrant. Paradise Valley holds a special place in the hearts of Todd and his wife Deborah since it’s close to Livingston, where they grew up.
“Mountain Sky Guest Ranch is absolutely magnificent, across the board,” Dunlap said. “World-class facilities, world-class staff and meals … It’s one of those place that you dream about.”
Dunlap was successful in his quest to bring home an elk—with the help of his guides Kyle and Wyatt, he brought down a nice six-point bull during opening weekend of rifle season— but the trip was successful in other ways as well.
Madison, who’s 16 years old now, became quite enthralled with the ranch’s horses and befriended a wrangler who works there. This spring, she’s returning to Mountain Sky to ride all of the ranch’s trail horses to ensure they’re ready to go for the upcoming visitor season.
“She had an absolute blast,” Dunlap said. “It was an amazing experience across the board.”