This is part of a two part series spotlighting the joint work of a local Pheasants Forever chapter and the Wounded Warrior Project to give back to a group of soldiers who have served post 9-11, sacrificing for their country. Today, a brief overview and an introduction to the soldiers taking part. Tuesday, we’ll take a closer look at how the Wounded Warrior Project is helping soldiers transition back into the civilian world, and how local organizations can help.
On Friday night, five soldiers converged on the Great Bend area on a mission. The following morning, they would take part in a European style pheasant hunt, part of a two day event jointly sponsored by a local Pheasants Forever chapter and the national organization, Wounded Warrior Project.
“Somewhere during the course of my military life, I lost my hunter safety certificate, and I’ve intended to go bird hunting since I came in 1992,” LtC. David Johnson said. “I’m as excited as the day is long.”
The Wounded Warrior Project strives to honor and empower wounded soldiers by fostering the most successful, well-adjusted generation of wounded service members in our nation’s history.
The event was two years in the making, said Scott Moeder with Rooster Booster Chapter 504.
He and members Lynn Peterson and Charles Swank were looking for a way for the chapter to honor and give something back to soldiers, and after some searching, found Tim Horton of the Wounded Warrior Project in San Antonio, Texas. He did the research and found the men to take part in the hunt, and the PF members found local support from several local businesses and organizations.
“ There are a lot of activities, and people want to do these things,” Petersen said. “It takes a little knocking on doors to find the right person.”
Donors from all over the community showed support. The American Legion provided drinks and the GBHS foods class donated cookies and cinnamon rolls. Donors like Dakota Dirt, Inc., Great Bend Farm Equipment, Smith Supply LLC , Mustang Machine, Straub International, East Kansas Chemical and Doris Spray helped to fund the expedition, and Crosby’s Wildgame Adventure hosted the group and led the hunts.
Lance Crawford and his brother, Jason, own and operate Crosby’s Wildgame Adventures, “Hidden Hollow Lodge” They also belong to Chapter 504. For them and the rest of the chapter, it’s all about giving back.
“We appreciate what they’ve done for us,” Crawford said.
Despite the recent snowstorm that dumped between 10 and 11 inches of snow on the fields two days earlier, the men were eager to go. They started out the morning shooting clays after breakfast. The Tribune caught up with them to learn their stories.
LtC. David Johnson —Johnson grew up in Pittsburg, Penn. and now lives in Wichita, though he is still attached to Fort Riley through Warrior Transition Program. He’s been in the military for 30 years. He first served in Germany during the Cold War, where he was assigned to the Berlin Brigade. He was on wall patrol the night the Berlin Wall fell. Later, after he was stationed at Fort Riley in 1992, he was deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. On his fourth tour of Afghanistan, he was injured in a truck bombing, where he lost vision in one eye, had most of his teeth knocked out, along with receiving neurological injuries.
“When you’re wounded, they cut your cloths off, evac you to a hospital, you end up in Germany or in the United States, with none of your stuff,” he said.
The first neurologist he talked to said,”You’re either going to get better or you’re not,” and it’s on neurological time, which is seasons and years, not days and weeks, he said. Johnson was reassigned to the wounded Warrior Transition Unit (WTU), which is a program that allows the more seriously injured and wounded to have time to heal and transition.
That’s also when he signed up to be part of the Wounded Warrior Project. He’s been on a number of outings, but this one will allow him to finally try his hand at pheasant hunting.
Sgt. Marcus Johnson — Johnson grew up in New York, and in and since 1987 served with the Army Reserves, and went active in 2003.
In 2004-2005, he was attached to an E.R. unit at a Baghdad base hospital. He worked in mortuary affairs. When soldiers died, it was up to him to prepare their bodies to be shipped back home, and to gather their belongings.
“Inside their wallets, they had pictures of their wives, children and parents, little trinkets where they fold the dollars up into hearts, things like that...and you realize that they’re people. Just people like us. And then you think, “Wow, somebody’s going to be sad back at home.”
He says he wouldn’t change the experience, it’s made him who he is.
When he returned to the states, he was deployed to New Orleans post Katrina to help with the efforts there. That is where his symptoms of PTSD began to appear, and he was transferred to the WTB at Ft. Riley.
Today, Johnson is retired and lives in El Dorado, but still relies on his support system at Ft. Riley.
He continues to manage his PTSD, and is trying to figure out what he will do next. While he can always do medical work, he would like to do something else.
Johnson has never hunted, he said. He may consider it a new hobby after this weekend, he said.
Ssg. Josh Feinburg — Feinburg, stationed at Ft. Riley, has been on three deployments to Iraq, and has been to Germany. He grew up as an Army brat, he said, coming from a long tradition of military men who have been in the Army and Navy. He began his career in the Coast Guard. After a brief period of civilian life, he returned to the military as a member of the National Guard, and volunteered for his first deployment to Iraq. When he returned, he had no desire to go back to civilian life, which lacked the structure he craved.
Then he got hurt during his third deployment, and was discharged last September. Now, he’s transitioning back to civilian life. Today, he works as a loss prevention specialist for Lowes. “It’s been rough ever since,” he said. In the Army, he was a wheel-vehicle mechanic and an automated logistical specialist. He led and trained soldiers.
“Everything I’ve ever known or done is military,” he said. “It’s hard to figure out anything else to do besides that.” Going from leading a group of soldiers to working on his own has been a hard transition to make.
This is the first time he’s gone pheasant hunting, and is excited for the chance. He looks forward to joining the family on future hunts after this experience, he said.
Ssg. Ronald Ryker — Ryker is the only soldier of the group that has sat on both sides of the table at the WTB. First, to be served, and second, to serve as a cadre.
For the first ten years of his career, he was stationed at Ft. Riley as a member of 11 Bravo, a Bradley tank brigade. He has been a dismount, as well as served in all three positions as a mounted crew member. His original injury happened in 2003 during a deployment to Iraq. In November, his group went out on patrol, and after dropping dismounts, was ambushed. An RPG entered the track and went through his commander’s leg and then went through his leg and stuck inside the vehicle, he said. He was medevaced out to Germany for nine days, and returned to Ft. Riley to do his recovery. It was a month and a half before he could walk with crutches, and another month and a half before he could walk without crutches or any other kind of device.
He’s been a civilian now for about two years. He now has a government service job, working on the base. Being on post has made the transition easy. The hardest transition was when he went to the WTB, and going from being in the field as infantry, to being behind a desk, doing paperwork.
“It was a new kind of stress,” he said. “Now I was working with guys who had been injured, and helping them to get better.” IN the infantry, it’s all mission oriented. Everyone knows the mission and they’re all working towards the same goa. In the WTB, no two soldiers are wounded the same way, and they come from all branches of the military. Now, he manages 12 or 15 soldiers, but each needs to be treated on an individual basis.
Ryker has hunted pheasant in the past, and looks forward to sharing the hunt with his fellow wounded warriors.
Ssg. Vince Aguilar — Aquilar has been stationed at Ft. Riley for the past seven years. His present status is temporarily retired. The Army will keep an eye on his progress back into the civilian world for the next five years, and then will reevaluate him, he said. He suffers from a traumatic brain injury and has been blown up three times.
“I have all my fingers and all my toes,” he says. “I’m good.”
The severity of the explosions injured the frontal lobe of his brain, making it difficult for him to remember names and dates. He also has long term memory problems.
“It’s hard to remember certain things, like getting married, having kids, paying bills. You know, the important stuff,” he said. “But I’m good as far as knowing where I am, what I’m doing for a couple of days. But it’s been a challenge.”
While he can remember everything he’s been through--anything traumatic is etched in his brain, other things disappear. He told a story of one time when he dropped his daughter off at daycare, and upon returning home, spent nearly an hour looking for her.
“I called my wife, and she was in a panic and took a drive to the daycare where she found her and saw had signed her in,” he said. “I had no memory of dropping her off.”
He was part of the initial push of the Iraq war in 2003. While on duty outside the Jordanian embassy that year, a trash truck loaded with explosives drove in and blew it up, he recalled. He received a severe concussion from the explosion. That was before there were WTBs, and when he sought help, his livelihood was threatened.
An officer told him he needed to make one of two choices, he said. “Either quit talking about it, or you’re going to be kicked out for failure to adapt.”
His wife was pregnant, and there was no way that he could lose a job that one, he loved, and two, supported his family. He made a few calls, and was shipped out to Ft. Stewart.
He returned to Iraq in 2006 or 2007 from Ft. Stewart. He was hit by a roadside bomb twice.
“Couple flat tires, nothing big to worry about,” he said. “We went through a lot of tires.”
But that’s when one of his superiors noticed something wasn’t right with him. He was sent to Ft. Knox, where he went to work teaching soldiers to shoot.
“All of a sudden, I went completely blind,” he said.
It was the result of a neurological injury. Every time he exerted himself, he lost his vision. He was put on medication and transferred to the WTB at Ft. Knox. He had a very big folder, 22 diagnoses with six that were non-retainable. The doctor told him he should have been there and doing this years ago, and wondered why he’d taken so long. He has been told he will never again hold a job.
Now he is a stay-at-home dad. His son is especially happy to have dad home, and recently volunteered to help at the Manhattan zoo in order to get more active in the community. He was at first diagnosed with ADHD, but later the diagnosis was changed to PTSD. The diagnosis is actually secondary PTSD. “Because of me being deployed. His wife is part of wounded warrior wives. She went to a conference where they learned that children, because of our injuries, end up with secondary PTSD because they see their parents come home with severe injuries, or they aren’t the same, and its hard for them to understand. Since figuring it out, his son is doing very well in school.
It is his first ever pheasant hunt. The last time he went deer hunting, he was a teenager. This was just a blast.