On the last day of our hunt in beautiful southern Ohio, the rolling hills and valleys were just starting to come into spring, and the birds had not been very cooperative. Although it was a turkey hunt by name, this hunt was about so much more than just pursuing our beloved wild turkey. Annually, Bob Fulcher and the Miami Valley Gobblers Chapter hosts a veterans’ event, the Ohio Ability Hunt.
Six American heroes arrived one by one into the rustic camp. This group of wounded warriors had hunted with Fulcher before, so smiles, hugs and talk of past hunts ensued. Dinner and all future meals would be like most family get togethers – chaotic, hilarious, and at times, serious.
Fulcher, renowned champion call maker and call collector, not only makes calls for these heroes, he enlists the help of fellow call makers. While one can see exquisite calls at any call-making competition, finding decorative craftmanship combined with killer tones is a rarity. Fulcher presented each veteran with custom calls designed with each hero in mind, Purple Hearts and all. Each veteran received several calls along with other donated gear.
The scene was like Christmas morning, only with a turkey hunting, American hero twist. There were big smiles, a few misty eyes and lots of chatter from box calls, scratch boxes, pot calls and trumpets. Each veteran received quick lessons on the calls’ use, and throughout the evening, clucks, yelps and even a few gobbles littered the conversations.
Each veteran paired with volunteer chapter members as their guides for the following two days of hunting. Asked why he organizes the annual hunt, Fulcher said, “Once you meet these guys, there’s no doubt why you do it. It’s life changing.”
Some of the veterans on the hunt in 2021, or the year before, or even the year before that, still stay in touch, Fulcher said. As the hunt organizer, Fulcher joined wounded veteran Pablo Cadena of Tennessee at zero dark-thirty to locate birds on the roost.
Cadena, who served nearly 22 years in the U.S. Army infantry, retired in 2014. Although he had hunted as a kid while living in Alaska, he said he was inactive during his service years. After being injured, he reclassified and spent another six years in service.
Upon retirement, he became engulfed in an inactive slump, and his wife, apparently tired of seeing him sitting around, signed him up for a hunt. After that first hunt, a friend, who was also acquainted with Fulcher, recommended Cadena hunt with Fulcher. Cadena said he was unsure when Fulcher reached out but decided to accept the invitation. He didn’t regret it.
“It was an amazing experience,” Cadena said. Now, several years later, Fulcher and Cadena would reunite to hunt Ohio gobblers again.
To say that Cadena has done a bit of hunting since that first hunt is somewhat of an understatement. The hunt made such an impact, he began volunteering with Hero Hunts of Nashville, Tennessee, an organization that replicates what Fulcher does with the Ohio Ability Hunt: get veterans back into the outdoors.
“I get to help change people’s lives,” Cadena said of those outdoor experiences he now helps execute for Hero Hunts. While he started as a volunteer guide, Cadena now sits on the board of Hero Hunts and is looking forward to getting more veterans back into the outdoors.
“It’s not about the hunt,” Cadena said. “It’s about the comradery. You have your blood family, then you have the family that you choose. They are family.”
As for advice to other veterans, Cadena said, “The first step of any journey is always the toughest. Just go out and give it a shot.”
The 2021 Ohio Ability Hunt would be eventful, full of spurts of laughter, but just shy of birds over the shoulder. Setup after setup, although beautiful, serene scenery, complete with birds gobbling, none cooperated over the two-day hunt. No matter the tactic, no matter the terrain, the birds stayed clear. Such is turkey hunting.
As we walked out on the final hunt, down an old logging road, I thought I heard a hen cluck. Fulcher confirmed and we began to scan the area, crouched down in case a gobbler was in tow. After another few minutes, we started to walk again, and as my eyes scanned the edge of the forest, movement made me stop and slowly move closer for a better look. Around the base of a pine, I saw it again.
For a fleeting moment, the ground, littered with leaves, pine straw and other forest debris, seemed to come alive. It took a moment to register what my eyes were seeing. I was seeing poults, tiny bobbling heads, probably only a day or two old, hunkering down then scurrying short distances to disappear into the debris. If they had not moved, I would have never seen them at all. Then I caught sight of mom as another hunter pointed just inside the forest edge.
Just as quickly as the scenario began, the poults disappeared and momma hen flew across the old logging road we had been walking. Camera draped around my neck, I quickly swung to try and capture a shot. In the end, all I had to show for my effort was a blurry shot of a fleeing hen.
Within just a few moments, the scene would be only a memory. We carefully walked onward toward our truck, leaving momma and babies to reunite and hopefully avoid predators so we can meet again one spring morning down the road.
In similar fashion, the interaction between the Ohio Ability Hunt veterans, many not known to each other prior, had created friendship and an exchanging of memories, if only for a short time. The only downside was the bittersweet departure, but even that can be remedied next hunting season.
For a short time in spring, blessed with hunting opportunities, travel is necessary. Navigating airports can be a chore, but I know on the other side of the busy, sometimes crazy times in an airport, a hunt awaits. This airport, this flight, would be different.
Amid the bustling of passengers making their way off flights into the general walkways, instead of the raucous crowd usually heard as people converse and move about their day, I heard calm, an unusual quietness that descended as I made my way down the walkway.
Intrigued, I slowed my steps. The terminal next to where I landed, an army of civilians were all up on their feet, looking out the large glass windows at the arriving flight. Unusual, but I was ready to be out of the airport and on my way. Yet something stopped me. I walked near the back of the crowd of people to catch a glimpse of what they were seeing.
My heart nearly stopped as members of our military, on the ground, gathered at the back of the plane. As I got a better view, I knew right away that one of our own had come home for the last time. As I stood and watched the solemn ceremony, I realized tears had begun to flow. I quickly tried to wipe them away, but I noticed there was barely a dry eye in the crowded room. Complete reverence.
As they loaded the casket into an awaiting hearse and it pulled away, I managed to tear myself away from the scene and begin my journey to retrieve my bags. Luggage in tow, navigation ready, I pulled out of the parking garage. There, off to my right, I caught sight again of the hearse I had just watched from the airport terminal. Complete with law enforcement escorts, the hearse slowly made its way down the road in front of me.
It seemed fitting that God would use this flight, this airport and this trip to remind me of the cost of our freedoms. I prayed for that soldier’s family again and thanked God for the reminder.