Hunting is Positive Therapy for Military Warriors

Hunting is Positive Therapy for Military Warriors

On Nov. 5, 2009, U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan walked into a room at Fort Hood, Texas, where several soldiers were preparing for routine medical treatment prior to and on return from deployment. Suddenly, Hasan pulled out a gun, shouted "Allahu Akbar," and began firing. When the carnage was over, 13 people were dead and 32 wounded, many of whom were shot multiple times.

Staff Sgt. Patrick Zeigler was one of the victims struck multiple times. He was shot in the shoulder, hip, forearm and, most devastating of all, in the head. Unbelievably, the government called this massacre "workplace violence," but years later called it an act of terrorism, which indeed it was.

Patrick Zeigler was not expected to live. It was assumed he would raise the number of deaths to 14. He fought for his life in the ICU for weeks, barely holding his own. He was being ministered by an Army chaplain, who coincidentally was a friend of mine. At one point the chaplain asked Patrick what he wanted to do after his recovery. The severely wounded soldier said he wanted to go elk hunting.

The chaplain called me immediately. At that moment I was elk hunting in Colorado with David Allen, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF). I shared the information about Patrick wanting to hunt elk, and David took immediate action. As soon as we returned to camp, he organized a support group the likes of which had never been seen within RMEF. Patrick received hundreds of get-well cards and letters from hunters around the country. One hunter from Montana loaded his pickup with outdoor gear that he collected from other hunters and drove to Texas where he gave the gear to Patrick a few days before Christmas.

As it turned out, Patrick and his family were adopted by RMEF. For a number of years they were honored on stage in front of 2,000 hunters. There was seldom a dry eye in the room.

Because Patrick's medical condition was not yet stabilized, the elk hunt was delayed for several years, but he eventually connected with a big bull on an RMEF hunt hosted by the Express UU Bar Ranch in New Mexico.

Prior to that elk hunt, I took Patrick on two black bear hunts, one in Alaska, and the other in North Carolina a year later. Because he has some paralysis issues, he was unable to get his Alaska bruin, but he collected a dandy in North Carolina.

Patrick has often told us what hunting has done for his recovery and has thanked me and everyone around him profusely. When I asked him specifically about the difference hunting made, he wrote:

"Hunting helped to liberate my soul during my recovery from devastating wounds received in the Global War on Terror. I was allowed to experience the fresh air, relaxation and camaraderie that I had lost during my 11 month hospital stay. My elk hunt in New Mexico, thanks to the Express UU Bar Ranch and RMEF, was the pinnacle of my recovery after five years of hard rehabilitation. I can never repay the members of RMEF from all the chapters around the country who encouraged me and offered their support in so many ways. My adventures with my wife have given me a chance to heal and bond, and revitalize our relationship through the outdoors. It has always meant a great chance to escape everyday life and the stress that comes with disability. I am now a lifelong outdoor and hunting enthusiast.”

It's important to understand that this hero was able to overcome his demons because of the generosity of hunters. No other groups reached out as much as hunters did.

Hunting’s Positive Impacts Hit Home Again
Lt. Andrew Kinard graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and deployed with the Marines to Iraq. After being there just a few weeks, on Oct. 29, 2006, while on patrol with the 2nd Marine Division, he stepped on an IED. The blast caused horrific injuries, resulting in the loss of both legs and severe blood loss. He experienced cardiac arrest several times and required 67 units of blood. He endured more than 60 surgeries in Bethesda Hospital and the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

I met Andrew through acquaintances at Walter Reed. Over the next several years, with the assistance of his caregiver Christina Holden, I was able to take him on hunts to Africa and half a dozen states. His attitude was amazingly positive. Here's what he wrote me in a letter.

"Losing my legs in Iraq taught me a thing or two about resiliency. The key to it, I've found, is learning how to bend without breaking. Bending involved taking on a burden of a loss but knowing when and how to seek relief. Breaking happens when we think we can do it alone. For me, hunting and fishing were integral to learning how to bend. Most importantly, these activities removed me from the self-anesthetizing solitude of television and video games so pervasive at Walter Reed's outpatient clinic. Instead, I sought refuge in settings like the marshy grasses of Maryland's Eastern Shore, the vast expanses of the Namibian veld or the remote alpine meadows of the Rocky Mountains. Hunting was never (just) about the harvest; it was and continues to provide a restorative venue for meditating on the sights, sounds and smells of primitive nature with fellow sportsmen who appreciate the same. Empowerment—in contrast to entertainment—is of paramount importance. Hunting offers profound empowerment."

After recovering from his injuries, Andrew received a law degree from Harvard. He recently moved to Montana where he could be closer to his beloved outdoors.

Hunting is Empowerment
Andrew’s point about empowerment being more important than entertainment is commonly mentioned by military warriors. Take, for example, a young Marine, Jeromye Rogers, who was twice awarded the Purple Heart. Several of us took him goose hunting in Virginia. He had only hunted a couple other times. It was a perfect hunt. The geese powered into our decoys during a light snowstorm, and we collected plenty of birds.

Jeromye grinned broadly as he eased out of his layout blind. When we finished picking up the geese and decoys, he told us he had something to say.

"I need to tell you guys something," he said. "A lot of folks have done some really nice things for me. I've been invited to NASCAR Races, concerts and even the Super Bowl, but this hunt was unbelievable—far better than those other events—and I'm a huge football fan. I'd never experienced anything like this hunt." When I asked him if he honestly liked the hunt better than the Super Bowl, he said, "I was a spectator there. On this hunt I was a participant. There's a huge difference. I can't tell you how thrilled I was when those geese cupped their wings and sailed down into the decoys. What a rush. I had tears in my eyes. I wasn't much of a hunter before, but now I'm sold."

Empowerment is Strength and Confidence
Fast forward more than 3,000 miles away to Alaska, where we hosted five warriors on a spring black bear hunt. "Camp" consisted of two boats, a 50- and-60 footer provided gratis by Mike Flores, outfitter of Ninilchik Charters, and whose three sons are actively serving in the Marine Corps.

Only one bear was taken, but we enjoyed the incredible outdoor Alaskan experience. It became obvious that the troops saw this as an opportunity to hang out and chat about their injuries, their attitudes on life and how hunting offered a special occasion to bond together. During the hunt, two troops sat together for most of a day, waiting for a bear to show. Back in the boat, one of them privately told me that he "spilled his guts" to his companion, finally banishing the demons that tormented him. He said it was the breeze in his face, the smell of the forest and the total ambiance of the outdoors that allowed him to talk.

Combat veterans communicate best with those who have had similar experiences in harm's way. Getting them together in the outdoors, whether in a goose pit or ground blind, allows them to share stories and emotions. Practically every veteran who sees battle action comes home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This occurs from experiencing an injury, witnessing an injury, losing a battle buddy, taking the life of the enemy and many other factors. A Purple Heart medal isn't necessary for one to have PTSD. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is another condition, often resulting in severe depression and various physical and mental issues.

Matt Keil was shot in the spine by a sniper, leaving him profoundly paralyzed, requiring an electric wheelchair navigated with a joystick. He's able to shoot with a rifle in a vice-type brace, using a "puff and sip" trigger with his mouth. I can personally vouch for Matt's shooting ability, having accompanied him on several hunts. I once saw him drop a moose at 280 yards. Matt's determination is uplifting for everyone around him. Despite his disabled condition, he accepts the extraordinary challenges because of his love of hunting.

A veteran doesn't need to be physically injured to have his or her head in a dark place. Many suffer and never show it. A sad, terrible statistic shows that 22 veterans take their lives every day. I once had a troubled soldier admit that he was considering taking his life before our hunt. The outdoor experience made him realize how much more life had to offer. That's plenty of reason to consider taking a vet hunting. There are a number of foundations, organizations and individuals who invite vets to accompany them on hunts—but more are needed. Perhaps you can step up to the plate and become involved. There will be rewards you never thought possible when you witness one of our heroes coming home again.

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About the Author
Jim Zumbo is best known as a Western big-game hunter, though he has hunted deer in all 50 states and is an avid turkey, upland game and waterfowl hunter. With two degrees in forestry and wildlife, he has had more than 2,000 articles published in outdoor magazines, written 23 hunting books and conducted numerous hunting seminars nationwide, including for NRA Hunter Services. In addition to serving as a full-time writer/editor for Outdoor Life magazine for 30 years, most of them as hunting editor, he was host of the popular outdoor TV show “Jim Zumbo Outdoors.” A Benefactor member of the NRA, Zumbo has won numerous awards for his writing and remains active with conservation groups, including serving three terms on the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s board of directors. For information on his biography, “Zumbo,” released in November 2016, click here.