Taut with anticipation of action, combat veterans entered the brush with weapons loaded and ready. Moments later, they began firing, drawing first blood this day.
No, this action didn’t occur in combat thousands of miles from home. These warriors were hunting quail and pheasant near Birmingham, but they really gathered for the camaraderie and healing through hunting. Not all war wounds leave visible scars.
“Warrior Hunts engage combat veterans in nature through hunting, fishing and camaraderie with fellow warriors,” says John Nolan, founder of Warrior Hunts. “Our mission excites positive change in the lives of our heroes. For me, the hunting is a byproduct of the camaraderie that we get by hunting together.”
Nolan served 20 years in the Air Force before retiring in 2012 as a master sergeant. He spent much of his career serving with Special Forces overseas. Soon after retiring, he met Charles Jones, who served with the 5th Special Forces in Vietnam and earned a Purple Heart for wounds and a Bronze Star.
“The Vietnam generation realizes that when men and women come home, they need that camaraderie and that time,” Nolan says. “Just being kind to a veteran helps fight a battle you don’t even know is going on. It doesn’t take a lot to say ‘thank you’ and it really goes a long way. That’s where the healing really starts.”
Jones owns 3PJ Outfitting in Ashville, Ala. and has access to bird hunting operations. Nolan knows many warriors who would benefit from an outdoors adventure. The two veterans teamed up for a new mission. Nolan finds warriors who would enjoy a weekend of hunting and camaraderie. Jones enlisted his friends, Scott and Elizabeth Deuel of Stick Lake Hunting Preserve (sticklakehunting.com) in Springville, Ala. and Mike McClendon with the nearby Heart of Dixie Hunting Preserve, who can offer the vets places to hunt.
“These hunts are not just a ‘thank you,’ but also a healing process,” Jones says. “It’s not only a healing process for them, but for me. I was an Army Green Beret in Vietnam. These events have helped me to heal a lot of wounds from that war.”
Each year, Nolan brings some warriors to Alabama where they spend a few days walking the fields behind trained bird dogs. At night, everyone gathers in the lodge to eat their fill of home-cooked food and swap stories.
“We’ve been able to put more than 400 warriors and their families into nature in Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas and other states since 2012,” Nolan says. “Spouses, children and caregivers are included whenever possible. Anytime we can bundle conservation, love of nature, veterans getting outdoors with their families and helping others, that’s a good thing.”
On this hunt is Air Force Master Sgt. Ismael “Ish” Villegas. A combat controller, Ish accompanies ground forces to communicate with aircraft putting bombs on target and bringing in needed supplies. He is the only Air Force member currently on active duty to earn two Silver Stars, the third highest combat citation. He earned those medals for bravery under fire in Afghanistan.
Each year, Warrior Hunts also invites a Gold Star family member. A military tradition dating back to World War I, families place a blue star in their window for each loved one serving in uniform. Unfortunately, they swap the blue star for a gold one when a family member dies in service to the country.
“Gold Star status is something that no family wants to achieve,” Nolan says. “The Gold Star families paid the ultimate price for freedom. They gave the nation a loved one.”
Warrior Hunts invited Brent Sibley as the Gold Star family member for this hunt. Brent’s son, Staff Sgt. Forrest Sibley, was killed in action while serving in Afghanistan in 2015. The 31-year-old Air Force combat controller earned four Bronze Stars for valor under fire and two Purple Hearts for wounds received. On the evening before the first day of hunting, Jones and Nolan presented Sibley with a flag that flew over the Capitol building in Washington D.C. in honor of his son.
“We want to let these warriors know that we honor what they did for their country,” Jones says. “We want to give them a weekend of relaxation and hunting. They don’t have to pay a penny for it. People can hunt these preserves other days, but for three days each year, we set aside the lodge and the properties to honor our nation’s heroes.”
People can help the warriors by donating cash, ammunition, hunting equipment and other supplies to Warrior Hunts or similar organizations. Even better, people can donate their time to help veterans heal their physical, mental and emotional wounds. On this Veterans Day, think about those who served or still serve and their families who also sacrificed or our freedom.
For more information on Warrior Hunts, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or see www.warriorhunts.org. Contact Jones at 205-915-5305.
John N. Felsher lives in Semmes, Ala. He’s a professional freelance writer and photographer with more than 2,500 articles published in more than 150 different magazines. Contact him through Facebook.