by nathan oster
Joe Stephens was succinct in his assessment of the big-game hunt that he orchestrated for three different groups of disabled veterans — and which made possible only by contributions far and wide from across south Big Horn County.
“We’re all done, and everybody did fantastic,” said Stephens, who lives in Bellingham, Wash., but has been coming to this area for the past decade to hunt. “We’re definitely going to do it again next year.”
Stephens is now in the wrap-up phase of the operation and will be heading home in the next couple of days. But for the past month, this has been his home away from home, as he has worked closely with local big-hearted local residents to ensure the success of the venture.
The first group of disabled vets arrived around the first week in October. The largest of the groups, consisting of six vets, followed, with Banded Brigade Outdoors taking an active role in that hunt. The last group of vets was here between Oct. 22 and Oct. 29.
In all, 13 disabled vets got to experience big-game hunting, Wyoming style, thanks to the efforts of Stephens, the nonprofit Banded Brigade Outdoors and an “overwhelming” number of local residents who donated deer tags, put them up in their homes, allowed them to hunt on their land and donated money or other services.
Stephens said all 13 of the visiting hunters came looking for deer.
They left with all of their tags filled — and thankful for the experience.
Scott Bornaman, the executive vice president of operations for Branded Brigade Outdoors, said he began communicating with Stephens early this year, around March. Stephens told him he wanted BBO to bring some veterans to Wyoming this year.
Bornaman said he was touched, but skeptical, thinking it “too big of an undertaking” to pull off in such a short period of time. “But Joe was adamant,” he said. “He said it was something that was in his heart, that he wanted to make it happen, this year.”
Bornaman said that among the veterans in the group of six were a guy “who got blown up by an IED and was in traction for six months” and another who still carries shrapnel in his body as a result of a wound sustained in the line of duty. All six of the hunters in the group were wounded in the same incident, he said.
All of the veterans who came on the hunts had some sort of disability, Bornaman said. BBO matches them up with hunting experiences that match their abilities. They’ve gone on hog, deer and turkey hunts, as well as on fishing excursions both from shore and off shore.
No matter what they hunt or fish, they always come away thankful for the experience.
“Early on when we started this, we thought the hunt was the thing that mattered most,” said Bornaman. “But very early on, we realized that has very little to do with it. These guys don’t care about the success they have on the animals, not nearly as much as we, the fully ambulatory hunters, thought they would.
“For them, it’s the comeraderie, the time spent together with people who understand what they’ve gone through, who’ve chewed some of the same dirt, who’ve been to some of the same places. Some of these guys, they walk around with PTSD or TBI never talking to anybody. Then they come out (for a hunt) and meet others who went through what they did. They may not know each other, but as they sit and talk, they realize they’re kindred spirits. A bond is forged.”
Bornaman said two groups of vets could go out on a hunt, one could have great success, the other no success, and the comments from the two hunts are usually almost identical.
On the day of the interview Bornaman had taken a hunter out into the field. He shot a deer that was in velvet, something he’s wanted to do all of his life. “He absolutely couldn’t have been happier.”
Bornaman and Stephens agreed that they got an overwhelming response from the community.
The names of those who helped in some way, or offered to do so, would be “a mile long,” Stephens said.
Among those foremost on the list: Al Martin, who donated several days of guiding services; Pab and Danae Good, who put up some of the hunters and allowed them to hunt their land; and Scott Good, whose home south of town was where most of them hunt their hats.
“I never served in the armed forces, but I have a lot of respect for those who did,” said Pab Good. “Everybody in this community wanted to step up to the plate.”
“In Texas we have ranches lining up wanted to help us, but down there, it’s easy because they know us and what we’re about,” he said. “Well the magnamity of this town, and how you all have rolled out the red carpet to us is absolutely unparalleled. We don’t get any better treatment at home in Texas where everyone knows us and loves us than we have received here. The generosity and largess of Greybull is unparalleled.”
Bornaman said he told Stephens “We will be back here as long as you’ll have us. Great place, great animals and most important of all, great people.”