By Tom Fegely

The nation’s news media continues to provide gut-wrenching details of warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan and other battle zones across the world, with almost each day carrying word of American troops who gave their all in tragic encounters with enemy forces.

Some injured survivors return home to recuperate with family and friends. Others seek residence in veterans’ hospitals, where their lives take on new challenges, scarred forever by burns, gunshot wounds, blast injuries, traumatic amputations and other battle-related disabilities. Some recuperated vets might eventually return to the battlefields after healing or spend their days in military service.

Despite the tragedies thousands of injured soldiers have endured, there comes the hope of spiritual renewal and empowerment made possible by modern wonders of high-tech surgery and medical rehabilitation. The good news is that military hospitals across the country report success stories spawned by activity-based restorative programs, many via the Wounded Warriors Project, founded five years ago, and the Paralyzed Veterans of America, formed in 1946, with 34 chapters nationwide.

A Chance to Hunt Again

One of the diversions offering hope and welcome distraction for disabled servicemen is a broad-based recreational program in military hospitals ranging from billiards, hiking, camping, cycling, fishing, wheel-chair basketball and other activities — including hunting. A facility well known for its appeal to disabled veterans wishing to hunt is 182,000-acre Fort Benning, a U.S. Army post and hospital near Columbus, Ga., established in 1918. The property straddles the Chattahoochee River, and includes about 12,000 acres of Alabama landscape, giving healing hunters new hope of calling in sharp-eyed gobblers, setting their cross-hairs on wary bucks or taking aim at the post’s destructive feral hogs.

Help From Warriors and Vets

At the helm of Fort Benning’s hunting program are WWP and PVA volunteers such as Bill Brickner, 66, a master sergeant and recipient of three Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. He was drafted in 1964 and retired in 1992. Just before retiring, he organized the post’s initial hunting outings after 29 years of service in Korea, Desert Storm and other Middle East conflicts. Disabled men who hunted before their service days became and continue to be his focus. During Brickner’s lengthy recuperation, he also fulfilled his wish of being able to deer hunt with his dad as he did in western Pennsylvania as a youngster. Today, habitat development, access work and guiding during Georgia’s 82-day deer season fill his days.

SFC Rick Shannon, a career counselor, continues to provide unyielding support to the program. Shannon has served 18 years and has been stationed at Fort Benning since returning from deployment in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2006. He also was deployed in Desert Storm and did two tours in Korea. Shannon never hesitates to offer his services as a volunteer guide. He believes he's blessed to have the opportunity to provide his time, making sure disabled servicemen and veterans have the chance to participate in an activity that otherwise might not be afforded to them. He’s adamant this is something that's owed to these people as a debt of gratitude for their service.

Also assisting the program is SSG Brandon Moak, 30, an Army staff sergeant and medic who served on the surgery team with a tank unit in Afghanistan in 2006. He continues to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder yet serves double duty as a nurse and education division manager at Benning’s Martin Army Community Hospital. Moak, who hunted as a child in deer-rich Texas, said about two-thirds of the disabled veterans suffer some sort of head trauma. Hunters are always accompanied by experienced volunteer guides capable of handling the unique procedures necessary for safe and successful hunts.

Another volunteer devoted to the cause is CPT Kyle Burns, 34, a 1993 enlistee who suffered traumatic brain injuries and serious neck and back trauma in 2006 in Afghanistan, when a Taliban roadside ambush took its toll. Today, he’s approaching full recovery and donates much of his time and concern to working with Benning’s hunting program. He experienced a favorite memory during one of his first outings when he joined his dad on a gobbler hunt and scored, making a long-time dream come true. Once a guided hunter himself, Burns has switched roles and serves as a guide to other disabled vets.

Biology, Bucks and Blinds

Initially, in 1991, only four vets participated in hunts. In recent years, however, 15 to 25 or more WWP and PVA hunters have suited up and headed afield with thoughts of hogs, turkeys and whitetails that roam four tracts totaling about 250 acres, which are gated and set aside exclusively for disabled hunters in the program. This isn’t a one-shot affair, however, as Georgia has an 82-day deer season.    Instrumental in the program’s appeal is David Mallard, 25, a junior-level biologist for Benning’s Conservation Branch. A graduate of the University of Georgia, Mallard oversees everything from creating food plots, land-management projects and aiding in the placement of moveable and permanent ground blinds. Under Mallard’s guidance, WWP and PVA volunteers are currently mapping additional acreage and building scattered ground blinds in anticipation of the increasing program. More than 500 disabled veterans are being transferred from other posts to Benning, and additional land will be set aside for more disabled hunters.

 “If we need something done to improve the habitat, David’s the man to do it,” Brickner said. “We’d have a hard time doing what we do without him.”

A Buggy and a Portable Lift

WWP and PVA financial help and donations make various services possible, as do individuals, outdoor-related businesses and sporting organizations. One of the newest and most beneficial gifts came via PVA’s financing of a battery-powered lift device, which rises to 20 feet and can be hitched to an ATV or truck. The portable unit, built in Mississippi, can be moved from one food plot to another. PVA’s contribution of $20,000 made possible the creation of this portable box stand, housing a bench seat and ample room to accommodate hunters inside the raised shooting house.

“When it comes to planting time, we pay very close attention to the honey holes we have set aside for the PVA stand,” Mallard said. “Offering these special hunters increased opportunities is our main goal with this program.”

Another welcome donation was a Bad Boy Buggy, a camouflaged ATV that eases transportation woes to ground blinds about the hunting grounds. The all-electric four-wheel-drive vehicle runs nearly silently, making it perfect for safe, effortless access to deer and turkey food plots. Army veteran Daniel Duke and his partner Brian Ginn, owners of Just Duke It, a Benning contracting business, made a donation of $13,000 for the buggy.

Helping Hands

Other financial aid comes from the River City Gobblers in Columbus, Ga., a National Wild Turkey Federation chapter that makes regular contributions to the Benning project via fund-raising banquets. Also enhancing habitat and providing better hunting and bigger bucks is the Alabama-based Whitetail Institute of North America, well-known as the producer of a wide array of seeds and diet supplements used in food plots. Various types of seeds planted during all seasons provide sustenance throughout the year.

“When we found out about the Fort Benning project’s deer hunting program for injured soldiers, we jumped at the opportunity to supply seeds and our help for the food plots,” said Whitetail Institute vice-president Steve Scott. “Our military puts it all on the line to protect our freedom, and it’s an honor to give a little something back.”

“Whatever we have to do to make their day a success, we do,” Brickner said. “It’s not unusual for a father or wife to accompany them on the hunts and families have been very supportive. We’ve even had warriors who didn’t want to hunt but were thrilled just to go out with us. One was happy to carry his camera and take pictures.”

“Offering these special hunters increased opportunities is our main goal," Mallard said. "The love for the outdoors these guys possess shouldn’t be cut short from being injured or wounded while serving their country. In the end, we will keep the outdoors accessible to our heroes and assure that smiles remain on their faces during hunting season and beyond.”

For additional information on the Fish and Wildlife Program or Wounded Warrior and Paralyzed Veterans of America hunting opportunities, contact the Fort Benning Fish and Wildlife Biologist at (706) 544-7516.