Hunt brings veterans together

by marlys good

The Oct. 16 dinner at the “compound” southwest of Greybull started out small, five or six people, but grew to about 20 and before the tables had been cleared about 30 people, including veterans, wounded warriors, support people, cooks, helpers, a television crew from Branded Brigade Outdoors and friends had enjoyed fried chicken and all the trimmings, and a wide variety of pies, cakes and topped with ice cream and/or whipped cream.

The guests came from near and far — Texas, Washington, Georgia, Washington, Montana, Minnesota, and as close as Sheridan. It was a fun evening, but the most heart-warming was listening to the give and take among the vets, the laughter and joshing as they shared hunting stories, laughing, as they “one-upped” each other on whose was the better animal.

But in the quiet moments, as some of the wounded warriors shared what the week meant to them, you could see behind the banter and laughter to the scars left by their experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places.

To qualify for the Wounded Warrior hunting trip, veterans must be 50 percent disabled according to guidelines set forth by the Veteran’s Administration and are carefully screened before being accepted.

People sometimes don’t realize that not all wounds are visible; many veterans suffer from PTSD; the mental and emotional scars that remain inside, hidden from view, are as real as physical wounds and scars.

Mark Kuhl of Kalispell, Mont., came to Greybull as a Wounded Warrior participant last year. This year he returned, on his own dime, to support the program and veterans.

Kuhl served in the Marine Corps for four years. “Then I had to get out,” he said succinctly. He recalls returning home after his discharge. “My wife and I drove up in front of our home, and there were 500 American flags in my yard. A sign read: ‘Thank you for your service.’ My wife and I just sat in the pickup and cried.” The man responsible for the flags/sign was Gerald Metzler, World War II veteran and Bronze Star recipient.

His experience last year as a Wounded Warrior brought home to him how important the concept of this project is. “Every veteran needs something to cling to, something to belong to. You can’t realize how important that is until you’ve walked in their shoes.”

This year, he laughed, “I’m here just to pitch ‘em crap; to make them feel at home.”

For Cedric Foster from Houston, this was his first experience hunting in Wyoming. A veteran of the Marines, he retired after 20 years and three months (“If you’re counting,” he quipped) and went to work as a safety manager for Joslin Construction.

Jovial and friendly, he certainly doesn’t resemble a wounded warrior. His wounds are inside. He heard about the wounded warrior program, thought it sounded too good to be true, but applied anyway. It has exceeded all expectations.

“This is so much more than I thought it would be. I didn’t expect the beauty of the state, the friendliness of the people, making new friends. I wish every place was like Greybull. Oh, yes, there are a few bad apples, but I just pray for them,” he said with a smile.

“This week hasn’t changed me; it’s just made me better. It has given me a new outlook on society; I had almost given up on it. It makes all the years of sacrifice, of putting my life on the line for this country, worth it.”

He would like nothing more to bring his wife and three children (17, 14 and 9) back to Greybull.

Every member of the warrior group, had nothing but praise for this small community, the majority of them saying this was the most patriotic community they had ever seen.

Foster said he plans to tell any wounded warriors to “hurry up and apply; it will be a life-changing experience.”

Meet Dave Kirchner and Ryan Drovdahl from Spanaway, Wash. Kirchner served 15 years, including deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, was severely wounded, received his discharge and returned to Washington only to suffer a debilitating stroke three years ago that affected his right side and left him unable to speak.

He met Drovdahl, a fellow vet, at a church service in Tacoma, Wash., eight years ago and the two became good friends. Drovdahl, speaking of the stroke, said, “It’s a miracle he is even here.”

Drovdahl said his friend Dave is “an avid bow hunter; he eats, drinks and sleeps hunting; went hunting every year.” Not the way Drovdahl defines himself: “I dabbled,” he laughed. “Dave was my mentor.

“The last three years have been tough for Dave; he’s been in and out of hospitals, therapies, and this spring he was as bummed as I’ve ever seen him. Visiting him in the hospital, seeing him like that, was so hard.

“So I promised him that I would take him hunting in the fall. It was a promise. I had no idea how it could be accomplished, so gave it to God, asked Him to help me find a way.”

To make a long story short, Drovdahl met a man acquainted with the Wounded Warrior program, had Dave apply and in September, heard that Kirchner been accepted. “It was huge; a very specific answer to prayer.” Drovdahl came as his friend’s support person.

Kirchner bagged his deer thanks to a group effort. Drovdahl said, “It took four of us, Dave, Cedric, Mark (Waslohn, a supporter from Blaine, Wash.) and me.” After downing his deer, Drovdahl said, “Dave was so excited; he started doing a little dance.”

Looking at the photo of Dave with the deer, Drovdahl, said, “Look at Dave’s smile. That tells it all; it made it all worth it.”

Both veterans of the same war, one wounded, one not. Drovdahl explained, “I think God uses me to be a blessing to Dave.”

Kirchner replies with a smile, a gentle hand on Drovdahl’s shoulder, and a finger pointed at the ceiling signals, “I thank God for my friend, Ryan.”

Glenn Hamby, who served with the Marines, was critically injured in a fierce firefight in Iraq, but refused to be evacuated; he insisted on staying right there, in a hospital in Iraq instead of coming home because, “I was a squad leader; I didn’t want to leave anyone there.” Five days later, he was back in action.

Hamby was discharged, came home and underwent numerous surgeries, including for a “crack in my skull, ruptured ear drum.”

He wanted nothing more than to get away from people, from civilization, “to live like a hermit,” he called it. He took his wife and four children to Anchorage. But you can’t leave your memories behind; they follow you.

At the urging of several fellow veterans, he applied for the Wounded Warrior project and was accepted.

“At first I wanted to come,” he said, “but the closer the time got, I didn’t want to. I was used to being alone, not doing anything.”

But he overcame all his fears, came to Greybull, and left as a man who remembered how to laugh, how to live. He brought his wife and children back from Alaska, purchased a home in Minnesota, and that night at the “compound” he took out his wallet and proudly showed everyone the picture of his seven-month-old twins.

Chris Ferguson, whose squad was in the same firefight, said Glenn “is one of my mentors; It was a hell of a day; his squad saved my squad’s life; without him…” Ferguson’s voice slips away. They are all a testament to the importance of the project.

Tim Abell, who lives in the Maryland/Washington, D.C. area, served with the 75th Ranger Battalion. He is an avid outdoorsman, and also involved in acting. About eight years ago he was approached and asked if he would be interested in hosting a series focused on wounded veterans and their stories, using the outdoors, hunting/fishing as the backdrop.

“All combat vets have a story to tell; every show focuses on some facet of their service/sacrifice. No story is ever exactly the same.”

This project is dear to Abell’s heart. “I feel that my life was saved for a reason, and I have dedicated my life to my fellow SEALS/special op soldiers.”

The trip to Wyoming, visiting, hunting, with his fellow “warriors,” is important to Abell. To learn more about this project, and Abell, go to: gratefulnation, or gallantfew.org.

The meal over, the veterans and guests gathered in small groups to discuss “the hunt” and share stories, maybe a few of them “tall stories,” joking, poking fun at one another, the fellowship of all those present was palpable. They finally drifted away, time to go to bed – next morning’s wake-up call would come far before the sun came up.

They knew that when the sun came up, they would be sharing the day with brothers; each a little stronger due to the fellowship of the outdoors and experiences bagging the big one.