Helping veterans heal through hunting, fishing
By John N. Felsher
Capt. Lee Stuckey, a decorated combat Marine from Shorter, Ala., started America’s Heroes Enjoying Recreation Outdoors, or A HERO, to connect veterans with patriotic members of local communities who help organize hunting, fishing or other activities. The supporters do this as a reward for the courageous service demonstrated by these warriors and to allow them to heal from the emotional wounds of combat.
“The primary purpose of these activities is to boost the morale, encourage constructive communication and engagement and develop an informal support network of war veterans across the country in an effort to heal the physical and psychological wounds of war,” explains Stuckey, who earned a Purple Heart for combat wounds he suffered in Iraq in 2007. “A HERO was organized and is operated by Iraq and Afghanistan Marine Corps and Army veterans who understand the challenges war veterans face today in re-engaging the civilian world.”
Stuckey survived three combat deployments. During one of them, an improvised explosive device destroyed his vehicle, severely injuring him. Dealing with the emotional trauma as well as his physical injuries, Stuckey put a gun to his head after returning home. With Lee’s finger already starting to squeeze the trigger, his mother called his cell phone. As the phone rang, the captain dropped the pistol and realized he needed help fast. If he, a tough Marine officer who led warriors in combat, needed help, thousands of others probably suffered the same stress and needed help as well.
Stuckey visited several military hospitals to talk to fellow vets and asked them how he could help them overcome their physical and emotional injuries. One Marine who lost both legs and all of his fingers, except his trigger finger, said he would love to go deer hunting again. Another vet confined to a wheelchair said he wanted to go fishing. The proverbial light bulb ignited inside Stuckey’s head and he founded A HERO to find people who could take vets hunting and fishing as a healing remedy.
“These trips are not focused on the hunting as much as on creating a network of like-minded individuals who are dealing with similar issues,” Stuckey advised. “A HERO gives the vets the ability to meet new people that they can call on when they are dealing with stress. They know the phone will be answered and someone will be there to listen and never judge.”
Many veterans arrive at A HERO events still healing from their physical wounds after recently returning from overseas. Some sit in wheelchairs or walk on new prosthetic devices they just began to learn how to use. All carry physiological wounds. Some once proud, confident and strong young men arrive depressed and withdrawn, wondering what will become of them. After talking with their fellow veterans, they learn to smile and laugh again.
Band of Brothers
On a recent outing, one small band of brothers, all Purple Heart veterans of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan or both, came to a quiet 1,500-acre tract of private forest east of Montgomery to hunt and to heal. They enjoyed the quiet fellowship of telling stories and jokes around a blazing campfire with the only people who truly understand what they experienced – other veterans.
“Just being here with other vets and helping each other out is very enjoyable,” remarked Daniel Meisenholder, an Army National Guard sergeant from Hamilton, Miss., who suffered injuries in 2012 when an Afghan child set off an improvised explosive device under his vehicle two months before his tour ended. “It’s a lot easier talking to someone who was deployed and who shared the same experiences than someone who has no idea what we’re talking about.”
Some of the men stayed up all night around the fire, not wanting to miss a minute of the fellowship. Others stayed awake as long as possible talking with their friends rather than risk returning to some hellish moment in their lives that still haunts their dreams. In the morning, most scattered throughout the surrounding fields, pine forests and hardwood bottoms to hunt deer. Others preferred to relax peacefully around the cabin on a cold, rainy dawn. What they did didn’t matter. Safe, well fed and surrounded by people who care, they could do whatever they wanted and take time to heal in their own ways.
“We’ve been working with Lee for about five years,” said Thomas Crews of Montgomery, who hosted the group of vets on his family’s property and allowed them to stay in his hunting camp. “We’ve hosted several hunts and a couple fishing trips for the A HERO program. We just appreciate what these veterans do for us. I get out of it just as much as they do. It’s really rewarding to spend the weekend with these guys. If they want to go hunting, that’s fine. If they just want to watch movies in the camp, that’s fine too. We just want them to have a good time after what they went through. They’ve earned it.”
A few older vets from previous wars also arrived to help the healing process. They all swapped stories of their experiences from their times in uniform, whether weeks or decades ago. Most told funny stories about people they remembered or the idiotic and illogical things all of those who served must do on occasion as ordered by Uncle Sam.
“I was in the original invasion of Iraq in 2003 as we advanced up the Tigress River,” recalled Ty Banks of Macon, Miss., who fought with a Marine Corps reserve unit from Montgomery. “Lee invited me to help with the first hunt and I saw how it helped the guys and how much they enjoyed it. Ever since then, I try to help in any way I can.”
Most didn’t really talk about combat. They didn’t need to. Those who endured it and survived already knew. Those who never experienced combat could not possibly understand anyway. Whether serving in a steaming Vietnam jungle, a frozen valley in Korea, a waterless Iraqi desert or atop a remote Afghan mountain, the scenery changes and the technology changes, but the experience remains the same.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed this,” Meisenholder said. “I’ve been an outdoorsman all my life. I love hunting and fishing. I really appreciate the opportunity that I’ve had to hunt here. At home, I still can’t hunt. This helps a lot with the healing process. I’m also helping a Marine friend who went into Iraq with some of the first units. He’s my best friend. We grew up together. It’s all about being there with each other and helping each other out. The best thing I take out of this experience is knowing that people care and are willing to help us out.”
After fighting and almost dying in the Korean War during the early 1950s, Purple Heart recipient Howard William Osterkamp once said, “All gave some. Some gave all.” Decades later, that succinct and poignant statement still sums up the experiences of veterans from all wars. On this Veterans Day and throughout the year, remember and honor those who gave so much so the rest of us can enjoy our freedom.
For more information or to help with America’s Heroes Enjoying Recreation Outdoors, call 850-449-4023 or see A HEROusa.com, or visit the group on Facebook at A Hero.
Mobile AeroFest to support AHERO Foundation
AeroFest 2015, set for March 20-21, 2015, will celebrate our nation’s heroes in a festival of music, art, food, and athletic events at the Brookley Aeroplex in Mobile. Sponsored by the Mobile Airport Authority and Titan FC, professional athletes will work alongside wounded veterans in efforts to reduce bullying in local schools throughout Mobile County and bring awareness and financial support to the AHERO Foundation.
The event will be featured on the CBS Sports Network during the Titan FC Mixed Martial Arts Championship Title Fight during the festival.
John N. Felsher is a freelance writer and photographer who now lives in Semmes, Ala. He co-hosts a weekly outdoors show that is syndicated to stations in Alabama. For more on the show, log on to www.gdomag.com. Contact him through his website at www.JohnNFelsher.com