The NWTF has always been active in Arkansas, from habitat enhancement projects to various community outreach events. The last few years have been exceptionally special, though, due to the successful and uplifting disabled veterans hunts that have taken place.
For the last three years, Arkansas NWTF chapters have collaborated with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Freedom Defenders Outdoors, Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and many others to host a weekend of fellowship, healing and the outdoors for the Annual Veterans Hunt at Choctaw Island WMA in southeast Arkansas, one of AGFC’s deer management areas.
Terry Thompson, Arkansas NWTF State Chapter president, and representatives from the AGFC and ANHC conceptualized a way to reconcile with the abhorrent fact that more than 8,000 veterans are taking their own lives each year across the US. The group decided they could make their mark by reaching out to the community and providing an outdoor experience with hopes of veterans connecting with the outdoors as a lifelong hobby.
“Jared Cartwright of Freedom Defenders Outdoors asked if he could help find our hunters,” Thompson said. “Jared is a full-time service member working daily on base in Arkansas. He has access to about 30,000 veterans and families across the Southeast. He lost a very good friend by his side in combat in Afghanistan and dedicated his life to helping others in need by finding hunts across the country for them to attend.”
Veteran attendees from the previous year came back to cook food and help with this year’s hunt, which included five veterans who served in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. All of these veterans are decorated and have made significant sacrifices while on tour.
The event started on a Friday night – with a meet-and-greet supper with all organizations and individuals involved – and lasted into Sunday afternoon.
“The opening dinner is normally very emotional as many express their gratitude for the veterans, and they [vets] cannot help but open up about their experiences on the field,” Thompson said. “Other veterans will open up with their mentors while in the stand. We try to reach out and do this on a personal level, so they can feel comfortable. My heart breaks knowing we are losing an average of 22 veterans a day.”
Freedom Defender Outdoors supplies hunters, cinematographers and some veteran mentors. AGFC provides access to Choctaw Island WMA, sets special regulations for this specific event, supplies two meals and places the blinds and food plots. NWTF Arkansas supplies insurance coverage as a state chapter event, hunter-orange NWTF logo gear, mentors and, if needed, additional funding.
In addition to the various partnership contributions, Tactacam donated scope readers [video cameras] to each veteran, so they will have footage of everything they harvested and looked at through their scopes.
“These veterans hunts are a well-oiled machine we built between three partnering groups and is nearly 100 percent self-sufficient,” Thompson said. “It has expanded hunter opportunity across the southern part of Arkansas, particularly for veterans with disabilities.”
The veterans shot four deer that weekend, one of which was a 11-point buck weighing 230 pounds.
The NWTF and the many organizations involved are looking forward to next year’s hunt at Choctaw Island WMA and the two new, unassisted disabled veterans hunts, occurring on the Warren Prairie Natural Area and the Longview Access area. These locations have only allowed bow hunting in the past but now have amended regulations for disabled veterans to use rifles.
“These hunts have positively affected every veteran and support personnel to a point it changed their lives,” Thompson said. “One older gentleman this year sold every gun he had in 1968 on return from Vietnam. He borrowed one for this hunt, and now he plans to hunt yearly with his grandkids. He said it changed his life. I often travel home after the last hunt with tears in my eyes and a racing mind on what more I can do. For our readers, when you go to a ballgame, bar, church or on a hunt, just realize the sacrifices that allowed you that privilege. Many [of our veterans] are disabled to the point that they cannot take their children [hunting]. Many widowed have no one as well. They are a different type casualty in today’s society that we need to find ways to reach out to and introduce to the outdoor world.”
Check out the March/April addition of Turkey Country for more on the community outreach programs and conservation projects happening throughout Arkansas.