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A weekend for heroes

Veterans gather to hunt and to heal
A campground was set up in the Sugar Bottom Campground for nine veterans participating in the second disabled veterans deer hunt sponsored by the Solon American Legion and English River Outfitters. The three-day hunt was held Friday, Oct. 21, through Sunday, Oct. 23, near the Coralville Lake on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land. Five campers (seen in the background) were rented from the Rock Island Arsenal, providing a bivouac for the vets. (photo courtesy Scott Storck)

By Chris Umscheid
Solon Economist
LAKE MACBRIDE– Nine disabled veterans spent three days bow hunting deer in late October in the Sugar Bottom Campground and Coralville Lake area thanks to an extensive cooperative effort. It was the second such hunt, with the first being a shotgun deer hunt last year.
The seeds for the hunt were planted over a year ago when Chuck Geertz, founder of English River Outfitters (ERO) contacted Justin Lind with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers seeking 20 campsites in the Sugar Bottom Campground for female veterans who were victims of sexual assault. Lind quickly agreed, and then asked what else could he do.
“That opened up the door right there,” said Curt Phillips, the point man representing the Solon American Legion Stinocher Post 460.
Geertz floated the idea of a deer hunt for disabled veterans and approached Phillips, who said, “Like everybody else has, I said, what can I do for you? It was a huge success, we saved two lives and processed a lot of deer, too.”
Lind sought permission from the federal government to open land to the vets, which is normally off-limits to all hunters.
“Even the park rangers can’t hunt that ground,” Phillips said. “It’s closed. It’s federal ground, you can’t hunt there, if you’re caught hunting there, you go to jail. With the exception of the disabled veterans deer hunt.”

Making a difference and saving lives
The hunt started out as a way to provide a little outdoor recreation for veterans. However it proved to be life changing, and as Phillips said, life saving as well. Two vets in the first hunt were on the edge of suicide, he said.
By the time the weekend was over, he said, “They had taken that off the table. We saved two lives. And that’s how you judge the success or the failure of the hunt.”
Phillips stressed the men had pulled themselves back from the edge.
“You can’t pull somebody back. When these guys come back with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), for a lot of them, life is a living hell and they just get to the end of the rope.”
They sometimes convince themselves they would be better off dead than having to wake up and face yet another day. On average, 22 veterans a day commit suicide due to PTSD.
“Nothing makes sense to them. They can’t talk to you (about it) unless you’ve been there,” said Phillips, a Vietnam vet. He’s found it hard to connect with vets from Iraq and Afghanistan, and vice-versa. “They slept in the sand, and I slept in a rainy jungle. Yeah, there were bullets flying, but the experience was entirely day and night different.”
It’s also difficult for many veterans to connect with others, he said. The Veterans Administration (VA) offers programs to help vets with PTSD issues, which manifests itself in a variety of ways and degrees of severity, “But it’s hard for them to go to anybody and actually talk to them about it,” he said.
But putting a group of them together for a long weekend, he said, allows them to share their experiences with others who were there.
One man told Phillips he had seven guns loaded and laid out waiting for his return. The only question he had was which one to use.
“He said, ‘I’m going home and I’m going to unload them all, and sell about half of them, and I’m over that hump,’” Phillips recalled.
Phillips said the number of the deer taken isn’t what’s important, but rather having a veteran say that the weekend– the friendships made and the conversations had with other vets able to relate to combat experiences– are what motivated him to change his mind and not give up.
“That’s what this weekend is all about,” Phillips added.

A joint venture
The disabled veteran weekends are made possible by the Solon American Legion, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Rock Island District and English River Outfitters.
ERO performs a selection process to determine who is eligible for the hunt, and the USACE provides a campground as well as access to a closed-off area for the weekend for hunting. The Rock Island Arsenal also provided campers for the vets to use. Phillips and his crew went to the Arsenal to pick them up, hauled them to the park and set them up.
The local Legion acts in a support role, as a gathering place and evening mess hall, providing volunteers to support the vets on a direct one-to-one ratio as well as set up the campground and hunting areas.

Volunteers are key
Volunteers are assigned one-on-one with a veteran for the entire weekend. They help the vet get to and from their blind or tree stand, check on them at least every two hours by cell phone or radio during the hunt and take care of any needs they may have: food, water, gutting and/or dragging a deer back and getting the deer processed. Whatever the vet needs, the volunteer is on it without fail.
“You’re either 100 percent in or you’re 100 percent out,” Phillips said. That means volunteers are on-call for the hunters the whole time they’re in the field. “If you’re 100 percent in, you don’t call me on Friday and tell me you’re sick and can’t make it. That don’t cut it.” That requirement makes it tough to get volunteers, Phillips said.
Scott Storck is one of those “all-in” volunteers who make the weekends happen. Even though he’s not a veteran, Storck was driven to help the vets, especially in light of the suicide rate among vets returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“My brother is a veteran who was in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. Storck tried to join the military but was turned down for a medical reason.
“I didn’t get in, so this is how I can help and kind of pay back,” he said. “That’s why I do it. We need more people to give back instead of take. It’d be a lot better place to live.”
While he’s not able to relate to the veterans from a military perspective, he’s a hunter and is able to use that common bond to get to know the guys, even though they tend to stay with their own group. As the weekend progressed, they tended to open up more. Often, what they want or need, he said, is just someone to listen to them. The difference in the veterans after the event can be profound, Storck noted.

Local businesses step up in a big way
“We try to keep the out-of-pocket costs to the hunter to the bare, bare minimum,” Phillips said.
As an example, while the hunters all have to obtain licenses through the Department of Natural Resources, ERO reimburses them for the cost. Area businesses have banded together to provide equipment, supplies and services at no charge as well. And all it took, Phillips said, was simply going in and asking them for help.

Scheels in Coralville
“I asked them (last year) for hats and vests for the hunters, propane tanks (for small heaters), shotgun slugs and they said, ‘Whatever you want. Just tell me how much of whatever you want, and I’ll call you when it’s ready so you can come pick it up,’” Phillips said.
Theisen’s in Coralville was the same way, he said.

Ruzicka’s in Solon
“They’ve been more than generous,” Phillips said. “They’ve donated all the deer processing for all the hunters at no charge.” Ruzicka’s also provides lunch, again at no charge, during the weekend as well.
“Last year I went to Jeff Ruzicka, and told him we were doing a shotgun hunt, and initially just asked him to provide meat for lunch.” Ruzicka went far beyond that, he said. “We had a catered, hot lunch for them at the campground. Way, way overboard. We had barbecued ribs one day, hot roast beef was another day, turkey was another day.” All he was hoping for, he said, was a simple sandwich. “Jeff just took it to the next level and beyond. It was like going to a banquet. He said, ‘I’m not going to just feed a veteran a bologna sandwich.’”
But, Ruzicka didn’t stop there, Phillips said.
“He asked me what we were going to do with the deer, and I said I don’t know, that’s a good question.” Ruzicka told him to bring the deer in to his locker, and offered to take care of all of the processing.
After it was over and done with, Phillips said he went in to settle up for the meals and processing. “Jeff said, ‘You don’t have a bill. Your account is paid and paid in full by the service the veterans provided,’” he said.

Sam’s Main Street Market in Solon
Sam’s provided a full breakfast every morning at no charge. Last year, Phillips asked a local vendor for five-dozen donuts.
“They said, ‘No, we don’t feel like we need to do that.’ So I said if you don’t feel you want to donate, that’s fine. I went to Sam’s and explained to him (Sam Lensing, owner) what we were doing, he asked what we wanted, and I said pastry and donuts for 20 people for three days. He said, ‘Well that’s not enough.’”
Lensing said the guys should have fruit, juice and other things and went all out with, “literally grocery carts full of food,” Phillips said.

The vets who participate must have, at a minimum, a 30 percent disability rating as determined by the Veterans Administration. Veterans apply from across the country and ERO screens the applications. Points are awarded based on a list of criteria.
For the October hunt, six were from within Iowa, with the rest from out-of-state. Last year’s shotgun hunt had 12 hunters from twelve different states, Phillips said. “They just came from everywhere.”
So far, PTSD has been the most common disability, although two veterans last year had limited mobility. At least one wheelchair-accessible blind is available if needed, Phillips said, adding they’re able to accommodate any veteran’s needs.

How you can help
“We had a lot of people who donated a lot of things, but at the end of the day, this is a very expensive undertaking,” Phillips said.
For example, the campers from the Rock Island Arsenal were provided for a rental fee. The hunting licenses had to be purchased, the food was purchased by the Legion for the evening meals, and even with donations from Scheels and Theisen’s, Phillips said there were still arrows and shotgun shells to buy, along with special items such as a climbing deer stand and replacement blinds for two that were stolen.
“Somebody decided that they needed a camouflaged deer blind worse than a disabled veteran coming to use it,” he said.
Phillips added, “There’s constant expenses that are being incurred. And if we can collect $100, $200, $300, $500 bucks, whatever it is here and there, it all helps.”
The Legion has a separate account, The Veterans Service Fund, established at the Solon State Bank to pay for a veteran’s Honor Flight or the Disabled Veterans’ Deer Hunt.
A silent auction was held the night before the bow hunt at the Legion and provided an opportunity for people to meet the vets. Another silent auction, a meat raffle, live music and a drink special was held at the Legion on Saturday, Nov. 12, with proceeds going to the Veterans’ Service Fund.
On Friday, Dec. 2, another silent auction was held along with a meet-and-greet with the veterans participating in the shotgun deer hunt.
There will be a volunteer appreciation reception and 2017 kick-off Saturday, Jan. 28, from 1-5 p.m. at Flamingo in Cedar Rapids, as well as an ongoing weekly pilot program for veterans and family members to care for horses at Miracles in Motion near Swisher.
“Come on in and meet and greet some of America’s heroes,” Phillips said. “You need to understand what it is that these guys are doing for you. Come on in and meet them, shake their hand, thank them for their service.”
Helping his fellow vets going through a rough time is a mission Phillips is glad to take on. “It takes a lot of time, a lot of commitment and a lot of money. There’s a lot of work that’s involved with it, but it’s all a labor of love.”
English River Outfitters served 400 veterans and families in 2016. Learn more at englishriveroutfitters.org.