His question was short and simple: Would I consider hosting a deer hunt for a few Fort Hood soldiers who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan?
A few months ago, when I received a call from Bob Stratmann, the answer to his question was easy. He is affiliated with Legacy Outfitters, a faith-based organization headquartered in Waco with chapters in 13 other Texas cities. Its mission is to help men understand their responsibility is not only to provide for their families but also to lead. The organization’s web page is legacyoutfitters.org.
It started on Monday. From the minute Robert Swonke and I shook the soldiers’ hands and looked in their eyes at the front gate I knew the next few days were going to be memorable. We can only imagine the unbelievable sacrifices these men gave to protect our freedom. Freedom isn’t free, as these men know too well.
Gordon Long is from Copperas Cove and has served in the Army for 11 years. He was discharged a couple of months ago from injuries he received in Iraq. He spends time operating the sound system at his church and teaching Sunday school.
Sergeant Sean Humble has served since 1989, is married and has five daughters. He was deployed to Iraq in March 2003. He was injured during a combat patrol in January 2004, which resulted in a medical EVAC to Germany. He returned to Iraq in November 2005. Because of his injuries, he was assigned to Delta Company, 1
Jayson Williamson is from Kentucky and loves the outdoors. He was deployed to Mosul, Iraq in November 2007. Jason went on more than 200 combat missions before being medically evacuated in July 2008. On his very first mission his vehicle hit an IED 300 yards from the front gate. A month later his vehicle hit another. The third one was the "one that got us," as he put it. Jason is also in the Warrior Transition Brigade at Fort Hood waiting medical retirement. He wants to own his own fishing guide service some day in North Carolina.
Nicolas Oster was deployed to Iraq from June 2008 to June 2009. His last day in the Army was November 12. He plans on attending Texas State Technical College in Waco and pursuing a degree in diesel mechanics.
As is the custom at the ranch, Mac Mahan from Roosevelt was our cook. We were treated to a great meal Monday night when San Angelo residents came out to personally thank these heroes. Robert Swonke, a Viet Nam veteran, long-time friend and ex-Granite executive, served as hunting guide along with several folks from Legacy Outfitters. They left Wednesday with ice chests crammed with deer meat. It will come as no surprise that these guys are good shots, and there were no wasted bullets.
And then on to Midland Thursday evening…..
In 2002 Terry Johnson, a Midland resident, met a Vietnam veteran in an airport and asked him if he liked to hunt. He did and "Hunt for Heroes" was born. That first hunt with two soldiers in 2002 has grown to 50 wounded heroes.
Twenty five of them arrived in Midland on Thursday and were greeted by local citizens along a parade route to the coliseum, where a crowd of 4,500 cheering Americans joined them for a wonderful meal, patriotic speeches by Mr. Johnson, Barney Barnum, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy Reserve Affairs and holder of the Medal of Honor for valor, a video of appreciation from former President Bush and a lot of flag waving. All WW II, Korean War, Vietnam and Iraq veterans from all services were recognized. Tom Rattan, a Vietnam veteran himself, brought his mother, a Navy Wave and WWII veteran, and she was recognized. The parents of soldiers currently serving were recognized as well as several sets of parents whose sons gave the ultimate price.
Each soldier was given everything they could possibly need for the hunt, including a Ruger deer rifle (sighted in by the Midland SWAT team), shells, hunting jacket, hat, backpack, boots, a knife, gloves — even a blanket quilted by Wilma Breen, an 85-year-old spirited lady. While the soldiers were hunting, their wives remained in Midland and were treated to shopping, massages, pedicures and manicures. All airfare was provided by Hunt for Heroes.
On Friday they left early enough to arrive in San Angelo by 10:00 am for another parade. The 114-mile trip took longer than usual. They were greeted in Garden City, Sterling City and Water Valley by school children and citizens all proudly waving American flags. When they arrived in San Angelo each was given a yellow rose by San Angelo school children at the beginning of the San Angelo parade. The parade toured Goodfellow Airforce Base, and the Wall school children waved their flags on the way to the ranch where they would sleep.
On Friday night a steak dinner for approximately 400 locals was held at Lloyd Whitehead’s Rocking Chair Ranch. The next morning all 25 soldiers were in deer stands long before the west Texas sun peeked over the horizon. They hunted on local ranches including the Rocking Chair, Kirk Cleere’s, Live Oak Springs Ranch, and the Pfeiffer Ranch. Kirk’s dad, Sonny has been the leading force behind this tribute in San Angelo since the inception.
All bagged very nice bucks, the best being a 12 point that was shot by Lance CPL Jonathan Rist, a soldier whose legs stop at his knees, the result of an IED explosion while deployed at Heland, Afganistan.
A great lunch was served at the Cleere Ranch on Saturday, where another large San Angelo contingency met the four soldiers that hunted on that ranch.
All of the soldiers had stories, but one stood out for me. Ian Newland was blown up in Iraq when an insurgent threw a hand grenade into his truck when it was ambushed outside of Baghdad. Ross McGinnis, a 19-year old gunner threw himself on it and saved the rest of the crew. He died, and Ian was severely wounded. Clark is a support dog given to Ian by his college at a cost of $26,000. Ian was a 4.0 student who grew up on a Midwest corn farm. He never had a Christmas gift in his life except when he and his brother would give each other whatever they gave each other the previous year. Clark understands 97 commands. Among other duties, Clark brings the phone and presses elevator buttons. Because of his injuries, Ian falls regularly and can’t get up but Clark has been trained to get under him and get him back on his feet.
When I was growing up and complained about something my father would recite the old proverb, "I complained about not having shoes until I saw the man with no feet." These warriors have made the sacrifices that ensure our freedom and our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
If you would like to make a donation to this most worthy cause please go to their web page, www.showofsupport.org.
Chairman Granite Publications
San Angelo, Texas
st Battalion, Warrior Transition Brigade. He is scheduled to be discharged in January.