2013 NWTF Convention: In case you missed it (Then…)

The theme for this year’s convention was Then. Now. Always. It pretty much summed up all we were celebrating.

THEN: 2013 is the 40th anniversary of the NWTF, so there’s been a lot of talk about “back in the day,” in a cool-and-not-annoying-to-us-young-whipper-snappers kind of way. I’ve enjoyed sifting through old photos and hearing about the beginning of the organization, which has been the collective journey and beliefs of volunteers over the years.

NOW: When’s the right time to celebrate? The here and now, party people! It’s also the right time to raise money for the mission, as well as acknowledge key partners and volunteers who keep the turkey world spinning.

ALWAYS: The answer to, “How long do you want to see the NWTF survive and thrive?” And how are we going to do that? With the new initiative that was officially rolled out during the weekend — Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt. (More on that later.)

Every year, the convention kicks off on Thursday night with the annual Welcome Party. Chevrolet sponsored the shindig.

The opening video for this evening is crucial. For me, it sets the tone for the entire convention. So I worked with NWTF Executive Producer John Brown to craft the video you see here.

We had multiple generations of the Kemp Family, of Edgefield, S.C., to tell the story of 40 years of the NWTF. They represent the many families who have grown up and grown with the organization, but the Kemps are one of a select few who have witnessed it all unfold in their hometown, where the NWTF headquarters is based.

Watch it and think about what the NWTF means (or could mean) to your family.

Other Welcome Party highlights:
• Will Primos telling NWTF volunteers that WE GET IT. The hunting industry icon let us know we’ve always been on track when it comes to our mission.
• Seeing NWTF District Field Supervisor Mark Jackson and his daughter, Sarah, walk on stage hand-in-hand to lead the prayer and National Anthem. This Tennessee family is another example of how the NWTF has impacted several generations.
Bass Pro Founder John L. Morris’ generosity. Sure the money is freakin’ awesome, but it also means a lot to have such a formidable partner.
• And, of course, Sawyer Brown proved they’re not just a blast from the past. They’ve still got it when it comes to a high-energy performance.

Check, please! Thanks Bass Pro for your continued support!

Check, please! Thanks Bass Pro for your continued support!

Moving on to Friday’s breakfast sponsored by Federal Premium Ammunition. It’s the annual recognition of remarkable volunteers who have made the NWTF outreach and education programs their calling.

We used the morning to showcase these programs’ valuable place in the NWTF’s overall history, as well as how they play a huge part in carrying out our founder Tom Rogers’ overall vision.

Two standout moments of the breakfast, for me, were:
NWTF Educator of the Year Scott Cronin announcing his students received a grant for their annual trek to the convention (where they learn about careers in the hunting and conservation industries). They, in turn, donated the $600 they’d raised to come to Nashville to Hope for the Warriors on behalf of the NWTF. Thanks, guys!
• Seeing Virginia NWTF volunteer Robin Clark’s smile as he accepted an award on behalf of his chapter. There are some people who brighten your day, even if you only see them across the room. Robin is one of those folks…

I know a missed a million more awesome moments. I hope you’ll share yours with me — and we can live vicariously through each other! So talk to me: What were your favorite convention moments from Thursday night and Friday morning?

Brenda Valentine’s Outdoor Legends Tour: Day 3

The first official stop of the Outdoor Legends Tour was the USO Warrior Center at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.

Our first official stop was the USO Warrior Center at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. Sick or injured military personnel are first transported to this hospital for treatment or therapy before coming to the States or being deployed wherever duty calls, whatever the situation may be.

The Warrior Center was clean and a place of support. There seemed to be a swarm of activities for the patients. The food was fresh, tasty and plentiful. Moral was high. And many of the staff are hunters.

This recuperating serviceman couldn’t get enough turkey talk, so I left copies of Turkey Country for the center’s library, as well as DVD copies of the Bass Pro TV show.

I just happened to have some copies of Turkey Country to add to their library and gave a few turkey calling lessons using a drinking straw. We spent much of the day signing pictures and spending time with rehabilitating servicemen.

We were then taken on a tour of the hospital and had an opportunity to visit the patients. As far as hospitals go, this one was very good. The United States built it in the early 1950s and it still looks brand new. Everything was sparkling clean. The staff was professional but super courteous and friendly. Best of all, it didn’t smell like a hospital.

The common theme I noticed from every conversation was a desire to get back with their comrades.

The patients seemed pleased to see and talk with folks from home. The common theme I noticed from every conversation was a desire to get back with their comrades. All regretted they weren’t there to help their unit complete their mission.

— Brenda

Brenda Valentine’s Outdoor Legends Tour: Day 1

Gazing out the window of Flight 700 headed to Frankfurt, Germany, I watched the last fragment of U.S. soil near Philadelphia slowly fade from sight. I pondered what lay ahead for our small group of pioneers.

Armed Forces Entertainment and Paralyzed Veterans of America contacted me more than a year ago about being a part of a special mission called the Outdoor Legends Tour. A small group of hunting personalities representing the North American hunting community would visit troops inside a war zone to personally thank them for their service and sacrifices.

Brenda Valentine is a woman on a mission: to say thank you on behalf of the National Wild Turkey Federation to the military men and women serving our country.

It was not to be a big production, rather a personal handshaking marathon trip with stops at as many camps as possible. Every detail would have to be carefully orchestrated if it was to be carried out safely and successfully.

The group I was part of included Bill Miller from Minnesota, a pillar of the outdoor media world and an all-around nice guy. He was at the helm North American Hunting Club magazine and TV show for 28 years and has extensive gun and hunting knowledge. While Bill is experienced with all types of hunting, his specialty is waterfowl and upland birds, with a real love for training sporting dogs.

Jim Shockey is a world-renowned big game hunter and award-winning TV host. He is from Canada and a wise choice for this mission since so many Canadian military men and women serve alongside U.S. troops and allies. His trademark black cowboy hat is recognizable to hunters everywhere.

Lt. Col. Lew Deal is a retired Marine Cobra pilot who now works with Armed Forces Entertainment among other military and veterans organizations. We were glad to have someone along to advise us on military protocol. Although Lew was our official tour coordinator he soon became just one of the guys.

Ronnie “Cuz” Strickland, the man behind the many successful Mossy Oak TV productions as well as a recognizable hunting personality, was scheduled to be a part of our group. However, a family health crisis kept him from going. I felt really bad for Cuz, since it’s truly in his heart to support our fighting men and women in the field.

I completed the diverse quartet. Pretty sure the service people I met from the South appreciated hearing a familiar accent with a sincere “thank y’all.”

—   Brenda

George’s Outdoor Legends Tour: Day 6

We spent the majority of our sixth day moving to a new location on the Arabian Gulf Coast, once again a new country and a new city where not long ago there was a tribal kingdom. Compared to other places we’ve visited, the political situation differs greatly here, and it’s a much larger host country. Its cities are modern, with business infrastructure and beautiful housing. It is a strong ally.

We are the guests of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, and are running late because of an administrative mix-up between our host country and us. We have just enough time for a short visit to the Corp of Engineers work area where we are briefed on the construction history and future plans for the area. Maintaining adequate drinking water and public health is a major enterprise.

It was a long day, but we were energized by the personal warmth and energy in our reception by the airmen.

The commanding officer of the Fire Brigade is anxious for us to visit their 9-11 Monument. He was at Ground Zero on that fateful day and lost half his group there. The COE and Fire Protection personnel are extremely proud of their monument to fallen heroes, and for serving with a man who distinguished himself in the line of duty and suffered the loss of so many comrades.

It is getting late. We invite them to join us for a meet and greet after dinner.

We gathered in the Recreation Center to talk about hunting, fishing and home. The room is full when we arrive, much like the night before at the previous base.

The general introduces us and tells the group we are here to express the gratitude of their countrymen for their service. He then opens the evening to group discussions and a question-and-answer period, which goes on until 11 p.m. (That’s 2300 hours in military jargon.) The small group discussions and card games continue until after 1 a.m.

I am amazed at the interest in hearing stories from Jim Zumbo, Jerry Martin, Michael Waddell and Ryan Klesko. The questions range from favorite hunting gear and hunts to most dangerous experiences to how did they find employment in the hunting and outdoors industry. There was a lot of talk about first hunting experiences (theirs and ours) and people who influenced our lives.

One airmen commented that he couldn’t believe that a group of hunters had been sent out after all the comics and rap artists they have seen in the past.

The questions still remain: Did we have an impact on these men and women? Were we successful in our goal?

Here’s one instance when I know we made a difference:

As we met with the troops, Ryan and Michael talked about the role their parents played in their career choices. Ryan’s mother worked two jobs and destroyed her health, while encouraging him to pursue his baseball dreams with his talents. Michael talked about his father’s support, which resulted in him winning a turkey calling contest that changed his life.

The next morning, a young airman who took part in the discussion asked a chaplain to help him contact his father. The father and son had been estranged for years and had not talked at all during his deployment. We were told that with the chaplain’s assistance they spoke and have begun rebuilding their relationship.

That evening, we offered a baseball game with Ryan pitching. Schedules rapidly changed, and we were given access to the baseball diamond between 8:30 and 9:30 the following morning.

— George

Click here to read more about the Outdoor Legends Tour on NWTF Spokesman Michael Waddell’s blog.

George’s Outdoor Legends Tour: Day 5

We are on a small base, and its mission is to provide 24/7/365 support for all operations in the hot parts of the theatre. They take care of things like refueling, cargo, limited fighter support. We feel privileged to glimpse into the logistic and emergency support that is necessary to our success.

Our first stop on the base was a briefing by the commanding officer. It’s a shame our press does not report the great job our people are doing over here. Truly amazing.

When we arrived at the camp gate, the security force met us with a sign that said, “PETA Members Only — No Hunters.” They are all avid hunters and had been preparing for our visit.

During the day we got to see every part of the operation, from fire fighters to security forces, supply and communications. We made a special effort to personally visit all security personnel at their duty stations. They work 12 hours on/12 hours off shifts, and many would not be able to take part in our meet and greet that evening.

The high points of the day for me were:

  • Meeting a SEAL team that spent 12 quiet hours on the base, then departed for a mission we know nothing about. They took an American flag with them for Jerry Martin and will return it to him with a certificate confirming that the flag accompanied them.
  • Putting my name on a bow that one of the fireman spent five days before we arrived carving by hand just for us to sign.
  • Visiting the Security Force K-9 group and meeting Cpl. Ronnie, a German shepherd. He and his handler gave us a full demo where he used a man my size as a chew toy. Very impressive. When not working, Ronnie reminded me of Lucy, my black Lab back home.
  • Sitting in the commander’s seat of a new Striker armored vehicle. It was configured with a 105mm turret cannon, which I got to operate. Glad these are our vehicles. They have and still are saving countless lives. Worth every penny of the $1.5 million per vehicle price tag.

Michael Waddell and I had a bit of vehicle envy. We got to sit in the commander’s seat of a new Striker armored vehicle and took a ride in what can only be described as the military’s version of a fire truck — it holds 3,000 gallons and can go up to 70 mph.

  • Taking a ride in the latest model of fire truck — not your small town red fire engine. It holds 3,000 gallons of water and can shoot it up to 100 yards. It also can run at 70 mph. A bargain at $800,000.

It feels good to see the quality of maintenance that goes into our support and combat equipment.

After dinner we had a meet and greet with the troops. The Rec Room was full when we arrived. It was scheduled to go on for an hour, but the Q&A, storytelling and conversation went until almost 11 p.m. These guys are eager to hear stories from home, and all have plans for hunts when they get there.

Another long day topped off with another round of poker with the same guys from yesterday. I recovered a bit but didn’t get even.

I finally hit the sack around 1 a.m., couldn’t sleep thinking about tomorrow’s early departure, and that I was on a base that doesn’t exist! We shared time with men and women who have dedicated themselves to a critical national security mission that will never be written about — and they will never discuss.

— George

Click here to read more about the Outdoor Legends Tour on NWTF Spokesman Michael Waddell’s blog.

George’s Outdoor Legends Tour: Day 4

Departed Camp Arifjan for the 30-minute escorted mini bus ride to the Kuwait International Airport. As much as we have enjoyed the Kuwaiti experience, we are ready for the next stop. We have no idea who we are going to see, what the conditions will be or how many troops we will meet. But we are ready.

As we leave our quarters at 3 a.m., the temperature has dropped and the wind is gusting to what must be 40 mph. Dust storm! We have heard about them and seen videos of roiling black clouds obliterating the sun. It never seemed real until now.

We come to the main gate to leave Camp Arifjan and are told the highway is blacked out. We will be delayed for at least an hour for a possible break in the storm. We immediately begin to think about the implications of missing our flight. We could possibly lose the rest of the trip.

Who’s thanking whom? Even though the Outdoor Legends Tour is a way for us, on behalf the hunting community, to thank the military for their service, we’ve received so much gratitude in exchange from the servicemen and women. I’m so humbled to be a part of this entire experience.

Fate is on our side. After only a few minutes and an appeal to the main security center, we are told there is a break and we can proceed. Off we go. The conditions seemed OK, so what’s the big deal?

By the time we reach the airport, the bus is being buffeted by the wind and visibility is terrible. Will the flights be delayed? Again we’re in luck. We clear immigration without a hitch, except Ryan Klesko lost his visa and has to go through a special line.

We make a few suggestions about the “special” treatment we hope he receives.

Pleasant surprise, the Kuwaitis are very efficient and forgiving. Ryan sails through with no drama, and we make our departure. (Did I mention the Kuwaitis waive all visa expenses for Americans? They appreciated our friendship in Operation Desert Storm.)

At 6:30 a.m., we land to change planes and have a 4-hour layover. Then on to our next destination, a camp in southwest Asia.

We land at the airport at 6:30 p.m. to friendly people, beautiful grounds with acres of oil palms (or date palms, I can’t tell the difference). On the way to camp we see an emerging city in the desert where there were nothing but Bedouin tents 30 years ago. The rest of the scenery is desolate, aside from a few goats, cattle and an amazing number of camels. There were a few olive trees that looked barely alive. Nothing is green without irrigation. It’s just rocky, sandy hills as far as the eye can see.

Upon our arrival, we had time to catch a little shuteye after not having much for the past 48 hours.

Here are our living quarters at the camp in southwest Asia. It’s great to see first-hand how well our troops are cared for over here. The food is delicious!

That evening we headed to the mess hall for some great food. Our troops are well looked after.

We then went to the Rec Center for a poker game, where I lost my a** to a couple of friendly reservists from Maine. I was the first to retreat to our quarters.

The next morning, I was somewhat encouraged to learn the reservists proceeded to fleece our entire group.

Maybe I am not that bad a poker player after all.

— George

Click here to read more about the Outdoor Legends Tour on NWTF Spokesman Michael Waddell’s blog.

George’s Outdoor Legends Tour: Day 2

We arrived at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center with a lot of apprehension, not knowing what we would encounter.

We found a beautifully maintained base, spotless. And the welcoming area is a USO office, which felt like being at home. It’s run by a dedicated volunteer and professional staff, some who have been there eight years. They served us a home cooked meal of brisket, and we shared the meal and conversation with ambulatory patients and medical staff. There were many outdoors enthusiasts among them, both anglers and hunters, so you can imagine there were many tales told.

Here’s a bit of history for you. Before WWI, Landstuhl was a hunting retreat for the ruling German aristocracy. Hitler confiscated it and turned it into a Nazi Youth Camp. It was liberated at the end of WWII by the U.S. Army Medical Corp, turned into an Allied forces hospital and has remained in service to this day.

At the hospital, we were introduced to the chiefs of each ward. I’ve never met more professional, caring and dedicated people. The staff is personally involved with each patient.

Visiting Landstuhl Regional Medical Center surfaced so many emotions in me, mostly sadness and thankfulness. It’s uplifting to see the strength these patients have, knowing these are the folks who are over here protecting us. I, for one, could only thank God the center held a light patient load that day.

We talked with a soldier, a severe burn victim, who came through the center eight years ago as a patient and was mentored by another patient. After his extensive treatment, he dedicated his remaining service to mentoring patients. He has a strength of character I only wish I had.

We also met a father and son. The son was four days out of Afghanistan, an IED victim. How do you express your feelings to a father who has rushed to his only son’s side?

The entire experience was one of sadness and thankfulness. Sorrow that the world has not progressed beyond conflict and combat. Thankfulness that we live in a time — and in a country — that has the best of medical technology and resources to care for the people who protect us.

The remainder of our trip is in the Persian Gulf theatre. I don’t know what we will see but we will forever remember the men and women who serve at Landstuhl.

On a lighter note, there is downtime. Gen. West had the first straight flush of the trip and is feeling pretty flush himself (with our money). Ryan Klesko remains a shark and has taken the single largest pot. Never count him out. Jerry Martin sits quietly in the weeds and waits for prey. Michael Waddell and I are like innocent fawns among wolves.

Tomorrow is a travel day. The skies of Lufthansa are not so friendly. They’re undergoing a baggage handlers strike. We have several alternate routes identified and are determined to not let the strike interrupt our tour.

More to come when we hit the Persian Gulf. In the meantime, click here to read about Michael Waddell’s experience on the tour.

— George

Oh, one more thing. I have to share some background on our tour leader, retired USMC Maj. Gen. Randy “Grits” West. Under Gen. Schwarzkopf’s command, Gen. West organized and led the Marine air support task force that coordinated and led the invasion of Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm. Under Gen. West’s leadership, we not only liberated Kuwait in four days, but did so without the loss of a single Marine or aircraft under his command. He personally raised the Kuwaiti and American flags over Kuwait City on Day 3 of the invasion.

Gen. West has written a captivating account of his experience. And he gave me the honor of reading his galley proof. It’s a story of personal commitment, discipline, duty, leadership and faith. He attributes his success to the power of personal and collective prayer. You will not find a more compelling witness. I could not put it down.

We’ll let NWTF members know as soon as it’s published.

George’s Outdoor Legends Tour: Day 1

Six months ago retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Lew Deal of the Paralyzed Veterans of America contacted me and asked if men and women in the outdoor, hunting and conservation communities would be interested in visiting our troops in the Persian Gulf. What a question! Of course we would! He put together two teams to undertake the trip.

After all the waiting and planning the opportunity to visit our servicemen and women in the Persian Gulf theatre is finally here.

Our mission is simple: Travel to a military hospital and forward bases to express the gratitude of all Americans to those who defend our freedom and keep harm away from our shores.

I am traveling with retired USMC Maj. Gen. Randy West, former Major League Baseball player Ryan Klesko, Bass Pro Shops TV host Jerry Martin, NWTF national spokesman Michael Waddell and outdoor TV personality Jim Zumbo. We’re all relieved to be boarding our plane because just three days ago, the other half of our group had had their tour delayed because of things heating up in the region. Everyone in that group — TV host Jim Shockey, Mossy Oak’s Ronnie “Cuz” Strickland, North American Hunting Club Executive Director Bill Miller, NWTF national spokeswoman Brenda Valentine, and Deal — was bitterly disappointed to suspend their visit.

We are the guests of the Department of Defense’s Armed Forces Entertainment, whose mission is to provide entertainment to troops around the world. We are told that this tour is the first of its kind in that we will be on the ground, meeting one-on-one with servicemen. We all feel a great sense of responsibility to carry the best wishes of our fellow countrymen to sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines serving overseas.

We met up at Dulles International Airport for a flight to Frankfort, Germany where we will tour Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Landstuhl Air Base. This hospital is the first stop for our severely wounded veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq.

You can learn a lot about folks around the poker table. I’m certain I’m a sitting duck to card sharks Ryan Klesko (a shifty dealer), retired USMC Maj. Gen. Randy West and Jerry Martin. Keep your friends close and your wallet even closer…

As a distraction from the delays of travel, and I suppose from the seriousness and gravity of the world we are about to enter, we have resorted to poker. You can learn a lot about folks around the poker table. It’s obvious to me that Klesko spent way too much time in MLB baseball clubhouses, buses and planes. The games he deals are only understood and won by the dealer. Gen. West and Martin spent a lot of hurry-up-and-wait times in their military careers. They are like patient, quiet sharks in the water. DO NOT let them hold your wallet. I am somewhere between a place holder and a victim, but I’m learning fast. Waddell and Zumbo are feigning inexperience, sitting on the sidelines like predators watching prey. I expect they’ll make a move in the next day or two.

Off to bed after a full 30-hour day. More after we return from Landstuhl.

— George