It’s always a gamble when it comes to Kansas weather and planning a hunting a trip in advance. This year, the organizers of the Pheasants Forever’s Rooster Booster Chapter 504 Wounded Warrior hunt gambled and won with unseasonably mild weather. It meant nearly every soldier participant signed up for the outing was able to make it, arriving at Crosby’s Wildgame Adventures “Hidden Hollow Lodge” near Albert around 5 p.m. Friday night. They were greeted by members and served a welcoming dinner followed by a meet and greet to get to know one another.
As the men began to arrive, tensions and anxieties began to melt, and attitudes relaxed. Instead of the daily struggle to make sense of a return to the civilian world, they were once again amongst brothers.
Zach Hunt, the Wounded Warrior Project event organizer, worked closely with Rooster Booster Chapter 504 to ensure each soldier chosen to take part in the hunt had the gear they needed to make the trip the best it could be. That meant screening each to determine the outing was right for them. It also meant finding the right sizes of boots, and coats, making sure the right number of vests and hats were available, and arranging for borrowed shotguns. Local chapter members arranged for plenty of ammunition and clays, snacks and water, hand warmers, and socks. Anything the soldiers needed was anticipated.
The Wounded Warrior Project helps veterans who have returned from being deployed make the transition by providing an arena for soldiers to come together and blow off steam. Some of the participants are actively serving, and others have been retired for a host of reasons. Some suffer from physical injuries, and other emotional trauma, and many carry the scars from both. What they all share is they have been injured during deployment, and they have found in the Wounded Warrior Project a place and people who understand the kinds of experiences they have endured because they too have gone through it.
Travis Koochel, a first-time participant last year, returned as a peer mentor this year. Koochel grew up not far from Albert, and is a graduate of Otis-Bison High School. He opted to stay with his family there in order to ensure there was a bed for one more soldier.
“The guys all get along and the camaraderie is great,” he said.
Koochel served in the Army 101st Airborne. He joined the day after 9-11 and completed his duty in 2005. He deployed to Kuwait in 2003 and served in northern Iraq. He learned about The Wounded Warrior Project after being injured by shrapnel from a grenade. He has since gone on a number of outings. Today he is a social worker at the VA Hospital in Wichita, working with veterans.
He helps to connect the homeless veterans he works with to the WWP. Recently, he helped a man who was waiting on an apartment to connect with the WWP, who put him up in a hotel for about three weeks until the apartment was available. The organization also provided food and other needed items. These thoughtful gestures went a long way towards helping Koochel provide the help this man needed to begin to get his life back on track, he said.
Early Saturday morning, volunteer cooks prepared a hearty breakfast for the party. All who needed licenses were processed and guns were lent to those in need. There was time to shoot clays and warm up for the hunt ahead as well as for conversing,and making friends.
Some of those friends were the many mentors from Chapter 504. Many of the participants, it turns out, were new to pheasant hunting, so mentors were there to offer tips along the way.
By 9:30, it was time to drive out to the field. Volunteers drove the party, and helped move trucks to the end of the field as the men made their way. Many were surprised to find their passage blocked briefly by a startled Llama that had escaped its pasture. Soon, the wayward animal darted back towards home and the caravan passed.
At the field, the men spread out, and the dogs raced about in anticipation.
For some, walking through the corn stubble and dormant pasture west of Barton County was an accomplishment in its own right. Back and leg injuries slowed some, but the methodical line allowed all to keep up. For one soldier, use of a four-wheeler driven by mentor Charlie Swank made the hunt possible.
Devon Olson kept spirits light Saturday, referring to he and his mentor, also with the last name Olson, as the “Olson twins.”
Martin Burne shared about his work with another group similar to The Wounded Warrior Project, with a focus on returning soldiers and veterans residing in urban areas.
Tom Collum served for over 20 years in the U.S. Army as a transportation specialist. Then, he received a brain injury that led to his medical retirement.
“Now, I need my wife to take care of me,” he said. “When I go on outings like this, it gives her a chance to have a break too.”
Since retiring, he’s hunted deer, turkey and duck, often with several game wardens in his home state of Missouri. When he started out in the morning, he had hoped the pheasant would be easier than duck. By the time the morning hunt was finished, Collum was sold on pheasant and looking forward to what else the weekend had in store.
The morning saw a harvest of 33 birds, all of which would be cleaned and packaged by PF volunteers. Back at the lodge, the soldiers were served lunch which included homemade chili, brats with all the fixings, and a variety of homemade desserts.
After lunch, the men headed out for an abbreviated chucker hunt. The hunt was cut short due to increasing winds. This provided the men more time for rest and relaxation back at the lodge leading up to a catered supper.
Jeff Jackson grew up in Manhattan, later moved to Douglas and joined the army out of Wichita. He went into satellite communications and served in Korea. Then, in 2003, he left the military to attend college, then rejoined in 2005 in the infantry. He went to Fort Hood, and in 2006-2008 he deployed, followed by a 2009-2010 deployment. His goal was to move into Special Forces. A roadside bomb that split his truck in half during his first tour in Iraq ended that dream. He suffered seven ruptured disk. Still, he went back, serving in a personal security detachment. His last deployment was to Ft. Riley. A General he’d served with during his 2006-2008 deployment helped get him assigned to the Wounded in Transition Battalion (WTB) so he could get to medical appointments and take care of himself. After three failed back surgeries, he was medically retired.
His wife is a veteran and a wounded warrior also, having served as a Military Police officer. She is also active with the Wounded Warrior Project. They have three children, one each from previous marriages and one together. They were both medically retired in 2014, just a few weeks apart.
This was Jackson’s first time pheasant hunting, and he hopes to do it again someday.
Sunday, the honored guests would experience European style pheasant hunting. Volunteers cleaned and packaged more birds while the soldiers packed up and made sandwiches for the drive home. They brought with them memories of time well spent and a portion of the weekend’s harvest.
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 Scot Moeder with Pheasants Forever 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. Four years later, the event has become an annual event members of Chapter 504 look forward to.
“This is one small way we can give back to those who have given so much,” Moeder said.
This year, Moeder brought along son Mathew, 11, who helped by taking photographs for soldiers during the hunt. For him, the experience was eye opening and deepened his respect for veterans.
Donors from all over the community showed support. They included Great Bend Farm Equipment, Scott’s Welding, Integrated Management Services, Dakota Dirt, Straub International, Advanced Therapy and Sports Medicine - Kevyn Soupiset, Mike Stegman, Tatum Dunekack, Crosby Wildgame Adventures, Doris Spray, Chris Spray, J&D Game Birds, C&V Home Improvements, and Mark and Teri Huslig.