Local Supporters Help Combat Vets Hunt & Heal
By Samar Fay
Published: Wednesday, November 16th, 2011
Six military veterans came to hunt deer in the Glasgow-Fort Peck area over Veterans Day weekend. Most of these soldiers and marines were injured in overseas conflicts. There were disabilities to deal with: back injuries, arm wounds, leg amputations, and the invisible damage to someone who returns from war in different shape than when he went.
Each veteran was enabled to get out into the field and every one got his buck, the first for several of them. Those who filled their deer tags early went goose and pheasant hunting, also with success.
A small group of people, Buck Up for Wounded Warriors, is dedicated to helping combat veterans meet a variety of housing needs including transitional housing, adaptive housing modification and home ownership. They also work tirelessly to raise money to send wounded veterans on all-expense-paid hunting and fishing trips to help them ease back into a "normal" lifestyle after their injuries. Being back in the natural world, being with other wounded soldiers who understand their disabilities and hunting Montana deer are big steps toward resuming their lives.
This is the second year that the program, Operation Valor, has brought wounded warriors to the Fort Peck Hotel. In this group were soldiers and marines ranging in age from 21 to 65, who served in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. The youngest, a Marine named Michael Martinez, lost both lower legs to an IED in Afghanistan last year. He lives in northern Virginia, continuing rehabilitation and taking college courses online. He is expecting to get new running legs soon. His father, Larry, came from Prescott, Ariz., to join the group. The oldest soldier this year, Tim Sandberg, was injured twice in Vietnam in 1968.
After their days of hunting, led by hotel owner and outfitter Carl Mann and his guides, and a wonderful dinner cooked by his wife, Linda, they sat around the fire in the hotel bar and relaxed.
“A lot of healing takes place in a non-clinical setting,” said Rudy Smith, the Corvallis man who organizes the program. “Some of them haven’t been with other soldiers since they got out of the service.”
Local people are eager to pitch in during the weekend. For a couple of years, they have held a bountiful potluck in the hotel on Veterans Day, making it a party for their military guests. Mary Ruth Bechtold and Gladys Robertson made quilts for each man this year.
“It’s just a comfort quilt,” Bechtold said. “ Quilts make you feel good.”
This is the third year that Smith has been involved in Wounded Warriors. He was drafted in the Vietnam era but was in a car accident on his way to report in, so he didn’t serve in the Army. He got started with vets when he helped his oldest son, Carl, put on a fundraising event called Buck Up for Wounded Warriors at a rodeo in Prescott, Ariz. After it was over, Rudy Smith suggested doing it again and his son told him, “Have at it, Dad.”
Last year Smith set up a small booth with the leftover T-shirts at the Ravalli County Fair and met an outfitter, Carl Mann, whose son, Capt. Jesse Mann, is a Blackhawk pilot.
“It’s amazing how things networked out,” Smith said.
Smith and his helpers sold shirts and raffled off rifles and were able to invite seven injured veterans to hunt mule deer with Carl Mann at Fort Peck.
Last spring, Smith arranged to take four veterans fly fishing. These men were diagnosed with one of the newly recognized problems plaguing people when they leave the war zone: post-traumatic stress disorder. Something about the act of peacefully casting a line into flowing water seemed to unravel some knots.
“This is how we know we’re doing the right thing,” Smith said. “One of the guys told me, ‘This is the first time since I’ve been back that I can relax. I’m not looking over my shoulder.’”
Operation Valor is the kind of project that attracts people. Laura Lindenlaub quit her job at a mead winery in the Bitterroot Valley to handle Smith’s public relations for the event. For a minimal fee, Dollar Rent-a-Car supplied the 15-passenger van that sent out from Missoula at 5 a.m. on Nov. 10.
The deer were taken on Lanny Hanson and Joe Yeoman’s places, land that allows some relatively easy access for vehicles. Rocky Kittleson and Dale Tarum have ponds that yielded geese for Carl Mann’s treat: a chunk of breast meat and a slice of jalapeño wrapped in bacon and grilled. Redneck rumaki – guaranteed to win over people who think they don’t like goose or duck. Up on Cherry Creek, Travis Jones and his black Lab, Riley, flushed out pheasants for the hunters among the Angus on John Kolstad’s pastures.
The vets themselves help each other on these hunting trips. Brian Becker, who served in the first Persian Gulf war and in Iraq, is a counselor at a vet center in Missoula. Don Goodnight of Corvallis is a great-great-great-grandson of Charles Goodnight, who pioneered driving Texas longhorns north into Wyoming on the Goodnight-Loving Trail in the 1860s. While a Blackhawk crew chief on his second tour in Iraq, he suffered a disabling back injury. Unable to work, he cultivates hobbies like woodworking and rebuilding cars, and he volunteers at the Humane Society. This was his first hunting trip since 2002, and he took his first buck, a five-by-five whitetail. He wants to assist Smith with the trip next year.
“It’s helping them and it helps me connect,” Goodnight said. “(Wounded Warriors) shows soldiers that people care what we did it for.”
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