|Wounded Warriors Hunt for Healing|
Alabama Marine Joins Fellow Wounded Soldiers on Quantico Base Hunting Trip
The dusky half-light was fading fast over Landing Zone Mallard on the west side of Quantico as a young, spike buck whitetail deer ambled through the grass, munching as he went. Several deer had drifted through the clearing over the afternoon of Nov. 7, but none larger than this adolescent. With nightfall minutes away, this looked like Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Stephen Ayhens’ last chance of the day.
"I think he’s heading for the tree line," Ayhens told Ed Sobieranski, vice president and treasurer of the Quantico Injured Military Sportsmen Association (QIMSA), as the two watched from a blind raised on hydraulics a few meters over the brush at the edge of the field.
"If you want me to make him stop, I can," Sobieranski said.
Ayhens leveled the barrel of a .50-calibre muzzleloader rifle and took aim. "Do it."
Sobieranski made a loud bleating noise, and the buck froze about 40 yards off, peering into the trees. The blast of the rifle sent a shock through the air in the little cabin and obscured the view behind a billow of smoke.
Ayhens, 20, had never been on a hunting trip when he returned from a deployment in Afghanistan with 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion in June, after losing both his legs to an improvised explosive device. He had tried his first hunt a couple of weeks earlier on an outing with the Wounded Warrior Regiment in his native Alabama, but he hadn’t made a kill.
Now, he was one of 12 Army and Marine Corps Wounded Warriors from National Capital Region military hospitals enjoying the first afternoon of a two-day hunt staged by QIMSA, an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization that has been taking injured war veterans hunting on the base since 2003. This hunting season, QIMSA will host seven hunting and shooting events.
After the sacrifices that so many injured war fighters had made during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, activities like that hunt were intended to help them regain a feeling of normalcy, Col. Dan Choike, commander of Marine Corps Base Quantico, told the hunters at the outset of the event. Having spoken with many wounded veterans, he said, "They don’t want sympathy. They don’t want to be coddled. They just want to get some normalcy back in their lives."
"This is the very simplest way that we can give you a thank-you for everything you’ve done for your country," Choike said, asking that in return, the participants tell other injured veterans about the opportunities QIMSA offers them.
About 15 volunteers, most of them base employees and all of them avid hunters, staged the event, said Sobieranski, who is the head of the Marine Corps Range Safety and Design Branch for Training and Education Command. "We take them out and provide, really, a professional guide service for them."
The association is supported by donations from a variety of businesses and organizations, so that the hunters are treated to the event free of charge. Food is donated by the base commissary, Perdue, Tyson, Foodland, the Mickey Finn Detachment, Famous Dave’s and others. Remington provides weapons, ammunition and clothing. The Band of Brothers USMC Motorcycle Riding Club had just dropped off a check for $500 the night before. The Military Order of the Purple Heart Service Foundation is a regular donor, as are a number of area defense contractors. The hydraulic lift that enabled Ayhens to perch in his wheelchair above the field, out of the deer’s normal line of sight, had been donated by Northrop Grumman.
Through the smoke from Ayhens’ rifle blast, the buck could be seen bounding into the woods. A search by flashlight didn’t turn up a blood trail along the forest edge, and it was beginning to look like the shot had been a miss when the body finally turned up several yards into the trees. Hit a bit high, the deer hadn’t bled out enough to leave a trail, but it had been a clean kill, just behind the shoulder.
Ayhens had bagged his first deer.
Back at the game checking station, where the hunters weighed and gutted their kills, Ayhens said the occasion represented a return to normalcy for him, even though he had never hunted prior to his injury.
"It allows me to get out of that hospital," he said, adding that the day had been "fun as hell." He planned to keep his buck’s backstrap cut for eating, donate the rest of the meat and maybe make a pen from the one full point on the deer’s head.
Army Staff Sgt. Max Janofsky, a longtime hunter from Williamstown, N.J., had just been evacuated from Afghanistan two weeks before and left surgery the previous Thursday. He had fought with his doctor and postponed his return home to be able to participate in the hunt. "I’ve never had the chance to hunt anywhere outside New Jersey," he said. He’d taken an eight-point buck that day.
Altogether, the 12 hunters ended up bagging 14 deer over two days.
"It’s nice to see the Marines and Army and other services getting together," said Army Cpl. Derick Smith of Fredericksburg. "We feel like we’re back into a family again. When we’re in the military, we feel like we have a family," he said, adding that the injured fighters had lost that sense of camaraderie when they were removed from the military environment.
"It actually shows that there are people out there supporting us," said Cpl. Lee Burton, a second-generation Marine born on Camp Lejeune. He said outings like the hunt also help wounded troops push their limits and realize what they’re still capable of doing.
Mac Garner, QIMSA founder and CEO, and recently retired Quantico game warden, said he had started the association to get injured fighters outdoors as part of their healing process. After losing an arm in Vietnam, he said, "I spent a long time in a hospital with nothing to do but sit around and vegetate." He decided to start staging hunts after meeting several wounded warriors, who were also avid outdoorsmen, around the outset of the war in Iraq.
"I think that’s been one of the biggest healing processes to me, aside from friends and family, is being outdoors," Garner said.
John DeBerry, base command visit coordinator and logistical volunteer for QIMSA, said the hunts have grown over the years, as a result of word having spread about their success ratio, quality food, camaraderie and "cadre of volunteers who are very passionate about the outdoors, the Marine Corps and taking care of wounded warriors."