We each take our daily lives and routines for granted. We drive to work, sit out on the deck after dark and enjoy a warm fire on a cool fall night and never think twice about going to the deer stand or getting in place where we feel out best chance is for roosting a turkey hours before daylight. Being in danger seldom enters our minds on a daily basis here in our country. Let us face it, we are a blessed nation and take our freedom and security for granted daily.
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Now, to help put things into perspective, imagine yourself being trapped in a submarine 500 feet below the surface and being stuck for five days with almost no hope of escape. Seeing your friends lose their mind from the claustrophobic and dark environment. The submarine is dead in the water, air supply is running out, food is in short supply, and there’s almost no hope for rescue. What impact would that have on you ever going back into another submarine again? How would a dark room or a door locking behind you affect you, and could you ever step foot in the ocean again?
I would like to introduce you to PTSD, a major problem many of our returning military troops are living with daily all too often, compounded with injury or other major health issues. This condition is often hidden from plain sight, due to their military training to never show signs of weakness to your adversaries. This becomes a battel within, mentally and physically. This has led to a devastating number of about 21 disabled veterans choosing to take their own lives daily in this country alone. A number I truly believe we can greatly lower by becoming more personally involved.
For the last five years, the Arkansas State Chapter of the NWTF, along with others across this country, are trying to help make changes in those servicemen and women’s lives by reintroducing them back into the outdoors and mentoring through controlled hunts. We have had great success here in Arkansas with those we have hosted, and it’s my hope others will commit to do the same.
Through a partnership commitment between the Arkansas State Chapter of the NWTF, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Freedom Defenders Outdoors and the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, we have sponsored a disabled veteran’s deer hunt for the last five years, with about 30 participants from all branches of the military. This partnership is ongoing and hosted at the AGFC Freddy Black Choctaw Island WMA West Unit, located in southeast Arkansas. Freedom Defenders Outdoors recruits from a list of veterans and chooses five hunters to participate in this hunt yearly.
I have seen a great outcome every year of this hunt. I remember one Vietnam War veteran that had returned home in 1968 and sold every firearm he owned. Last year, some 50 years later, he attended this hunt. A lot of talking and a lot of healing took place on this three-day hunt. When he left, he stated he was buying a firearm again and “going to start taking his grandkids hunting.”
How many people or generations did this man’s experience impact?
I remember having the privilege to hunt with a father with 35 years of service who could hardly walk or speak clearly, along with his two sons who were also disabled from different tours of duty. This was the first time in over 20 years they hunted together. How this changed their lives cannot be expressed in words. Needless to say, they now hunt together yearly, and it gave their father a reason to push on.
Another younger gentleman had spent his entire tour on patrol during night missions. He could not stand to be outside after dark or before daylight. Compare this to the submarine instance I spoke about above, being hunted every night of your life for four years by an unknown, unseen enemy on unfamiliar soil and losing your friends who are fighting beside you.
On the first afternoon hunt, that gentleman left us before dark and went back to the hotel where they were staying. Another veteran in attendance went to the gentlemen and ask to be allowed to lead him into his deer stand the next morning. He reluctantly agreed and as they got into the woods a short distance, he began to get very nervous. The veteran accompanying him (who was a military nurse) said, “place your hand in my belt, close your eyes, let me lead you, and hear what God is giving to you as the world awakes.” This changed his life — and mine.
These hunts are not about the harvest, although we have taken a 235 lb. 11 point scoring near 180 inches. A number of good bucks have been mounted for these vets at no cost by donations of local taxidermist. Most veterans take the meat home or at least have the opportunity. These hunts are about healing and getting those who can back into the outdoors and understanding it is okay to do so safely. Most hunters come back the following year to support their fellow veterans as they were helped. One of our first hunters and his wife (Trent and Darla Pettis) are now cooks for the entire camp during the second day of this annual hunt.
Each year the hunt begins with a roundtable introduction that is normally very emotional by sharing our thanks to the veterans for their service and sacrifices given. You would be surprised how far a heart felt thank you will go in opening the door to healing. Many veterans have never heard that and, unfortunately, many of us have never said it.
After our second years hunt, the AGFC Board of Commissioners requested a presentation highlighting the outcome of the hunt. AGFC Supervisor Mark Hooks, Jarrad Cartwright from Freedom Defenders Outdoors, one of the veterans who attended the hunt and myself aided in the presentation.
At the end of the presentation, a request was made to the Commission for assistance helping veterans and their families get back in the woods. The next month, regulations were updated, providing over 14,000 disabled veterans in the state the opportunity to buy a onetime lifetime license for about $52.00. You never know where humble beginnings will lead my friends. This is a highlight and accomplishment coming from the power of partnerships.
As much as I have seen in positive changes in those lives, I can honestly say mine has been changed the most; I am blessed. Blessed to live freely in this country and know my children are safe no matter where they go. I am free to chose my beliefs, religion and say what I feel without fear of repercussion. I can walk daily in nature and have the privilege to hunt or not, all due to these men and women who have given up so much for me.
I write this in hopes that others will accept the challenge to “give back” in a similar manner in which this event does each year for these selected veterans. It is a small service to give back to those who have given so much for each of our children and us. I can guarantee one thing: no matter how hard you try, you will be the one most blessed in doing so, and the friendships made will be cherished for a lifetime.