HUNTING WITH VETERANS – “I might die up here.” It was a passing thought, but a thought, nonetheless. It was well below zero, with the windchill of twenty-plus below. A foot of snow had fallen a couple of days previous. When I could get air into my system – it immediately stung my lungs bringing on coughing spells I tried with the utmost determination to suppress.
We were elk hunting the Rocky Mountains of Northern Wyoming. The snow and
the bitter cold had herds moving – without question, we were in the right place at the right time. A reality that seemed bleak just a couple days before. Rewind this story by two days, the scenic snowcapped mountains are replaced by hospital walls. I had been dragged kicking and screaming by my much better half, affectionally referred to hereafter as the War Department or WD for short. The diagnosis, pneumonia. One lung full, the other only partially full.
A heavy dose of antibiotics, some quick thinking and a small white lie or two to my medicinal captors and the War Department, I was back on course to the mountains. Of course, on a normal hunt – I’d have next week or next weekend, I wouldn’t take such chances or risks (riding into twenty below weather and deceiving the WD, both offenses carrying a possible death sentence). But this time – things were different.
My brother (not by blood, but experience) and fellow veteran of the US Army, Eric, was flying in the same night as my hospital incarceration. It’s a strange bond, men who serve watch over the other’s back while in uniform. One that transcends most, if not all, traditional friendships. Letting each other down is simply not an option.
There was a momentary reprieve the next day – we would use the time to square
equipment and horses away. Some exposure to the air, but minimal. The afternoon and evening time would be a run up to the National Forest to look at the country we’d be hunting – something Eric had never seen.
We would run into a herd of elk off the road, “you’re not shooting one of those, we’re going to earn it.” He might disagree in a crowd, but in his heart – he knew why. Transitioning from the military is a difficult time. The structure, the brotherhood, the daily physical and mental challenges – the inherent dangers that are encountered together – the stress and strain. When you leave it, a part of you is left with it. Much like hearing the stories of men who have lost an appendage waking up years later attempting to scratch what is no longer there.
Hunting filled that void for me. It gave me motivation and reason to remain in good physical condition throughout the year. And without question, hunting will provide you ample physical and mentally draining opportunities. As well as that walk on the side of danger if you look for them. I wanted to share this little fountain of youth for us discarded warriors of yesteryear with those like me. Those who sought similar challenges and obstacles. Eric was the proverbial guinea pig.
We parked the truck and horse trailer at the trailhead at 0’dark thirty. I won’t lie,
the cold was miserable as we saddled our trusty mountain critters through the assistance of flashlight. It was shortly after the last tightening of the last horse that the thought crossed my mind, “I might die up here.” However, without hesitation, I put my boot in stirrup, swung over, tail end comfortably in the saddle – onward and upward. Five miles in we ran into a herd of elk on a high ridge. Mr. Webster did not write enough colorful words to adequately paint the picture of that morning. The clouds were rolling in low and the rising sun cast a kaleidoscope of colors across all freshly covered mountain peaks around us. It caused us to momentarily pause to take it all in.
Within the half-hour, a single bark of the Ruger Number One .300 Weatherby
Magnum put down the lead cow. I would like to say we conducted ourselves as
civilized gentlemen showing little emotion, but that would be a lie. Following a few hoots and hollers that may have been heard in Yellowstone Park, and the rib jarring embrace veterans have trademarked we took inventory of the experience. It was the first elk Eric had seen up close and personal. The size of the animal to a lifetime whitetail deer hunter was simply awesome. Seeing his reaction took me back to my first elk. At that moment, the years since our ETS from the Army vanished. We might as well have been back in BDUs in the triple canopy jungles of Panama again. We sure wouldn’t have complained about some of that heat on this day.
It would be the first of countless animals for Eric in the Rocky Mountains. He has shot a couple of antelope and a few deer since. Each time following the kill shot – we were back together on some foreign land in our minds relieving those old glory years. Eric would not be the last, guiding veterans would turn into a new passion. I realized the therapeutic treatment the high elevations of Wyoming can present the longing souls of men and women in uniform. There are too many attributes of a hard hunt to list that step hand in hand with the days of soldiering for veterans in the field. At that moment, for most of us, we are temporarily whole again – and all the world is right.
I again was reminded of the similarities this season, as I explained the logic to my own boys in the field. After killing an elk in some godforsaken downed timber that took us seven hours of physically and mentally grueling work to get out, I said to them, “how can you explain a day like this to your mother, boys?” They quickly agreed – to anyone that doesn’t do this – there simply aren’t enough words to adequately explain. You almost feel it a disservice to try. So, the story of the day stays with us, relived only when we speak amongst ourselves about it.
Such is the way of the men and women of uniform. Unless you’ve been there, you will never understand it. Trying to explain it would be a disservice, so we keep it to ourselves unless amongst other veterans. It’s the primary reason you often hear, “yes he was in the military, but he doesn’t talk about it.” It’s not out of a sense of secrecy or rude behavior. It is simply something that cannot be explained. How can you describe some of the worst fathomable moments of your life, and feel blessed to have been there? To explain the only fear on those days was never your own life. But the lives of your brothers and sisters to your left and right. To know and understand unequivocally there are greater tragedies in this life than death.
This sport returns some of those nostalgic feelings and reignites in us who have worn the uniform that same sense of duty when in the high country together. The perils of the terrain, the understanding of the potential dangers of hunting in grizzly country. The miseries and hardships brought on by the unforgiving weather – and the ability to endure physical and mental exhaustions similar to those on days during our time in service. The kind when your body says, “no more.” But the strong mind and back allow you to carry on out of a deeply rooted sense of loyalty and service to one another. Where failure is not an option.
This epiphany with Eric was years before Hunting with Heroes and the likes started to crop up. It is impossible to explain the true joy I feel when being a part of these hunts myself or reading about them on social media or in a hunting magazine or newspaper. Not all wounds of service members are visible. And to see the temporary relief in the faces of such warriors in the field is simply put, intoxicating.
I am excited to watch the popularity of such programs grow. Equally exciting are some of the rule changes states are starting to adopt to encourage veterans to hunt. In Wyoming, if you were born on or after January 01, 1966 you must possess a Hunter’s Education Card – unless you are a veteran. Also, in Wyoming, folks can donate limited quota tags to veterans. If ever you’re presented the opportunity to partake. If you are one who feels a strong sense of obligation to the community. I highly recommend it. The rewards you will receive are countless. The opportunity you give to a veteran with your knowledge as a guide is often times, life-changing for that individual.
I oftentimes remind my boys that their daily back yard – and their annual hunts are a blessing and gift. Folks across this country pay too much money to count for one opportunity to do the things we do for months each year during hunting seasons. It’s even bigger for the veterans who are given that opportunity. It’s a trip back – and emotional and spiritual remembrance of yesteryear. Doing something many of us complained about often, but sorely miss daily. To be a soldier, men and women of uniform had within them a warrior’s soul. For some, that’s a part that never made the transition to civilian life. It’s an amputation of a part of them that was their identity and fall back.
For those who still hold to that warrior spirit – there are few opportunities to ignite, inspire and feed it within themselves. Hunting – being a hunter – is a warrior’s way of life. It was the catalyst to my personal successful transition from being a soldier to becoming a citizen, a husband, and a father. It was the cure. Sharing what I have found – and its impact – has turned in to a passion. A passion to share, and hopefully a passion that I am successful in passing on. All simply because I chose to ignore the doctor’s orders. Instead, choosing to saddle up and ride in with my brother, Eric on that ice-cold snowy morning all those years ago.