by Bret Amundson
*Editors note. Some of this article includes detailed war accounts from veterans that contain graphic situations. These were their accounts in their words. We cannot thank them enough for their service and their time to answer our questions. We will be receiving pictures throughout the hunt so check back for updates.
Look at the friends around you.
You are probably surrounded by people who share common interests and relatable experiences. If you like to hunt and fish, you probably have a group of friends who also like to hunt and fish. Maybe you’re a gear head. Then you are more likely spending a good chunk of your day in the garage having conversations that involve manifolds and horsepower.
But what happens you’ve spent the last 18 months in a war zone?
The people you are literally trusting with your life 24 hours a day could be from another state. When you get home, you may not see the men and women you bonded with. You physically return to the life you had before-the friends, families, jobs, hometowns, etc. Only things are different. While you went overseas, they went about their lives. While you might get along with them just fine, it’s hard for them to relate to the experience you just went through. And that’s no fault of anyone, it’s just reality.
I believe that service men and women who have put their lives on the line for the rest of us are the biggest heroes of them all. I believe they don’t get the help, respect and financial support they deserve. That’s why I am grateful every time I see an organization doing what they can to give back.
Yesterday I had the chance to get a quick tour of Camp Ripley near Little Falls and be a part of their Disabled Veterans Deer Hunt/Deployed Soldier Archery Hunt. I was invited by Todd Grewe (a veteran who also guides with Wounded Warriors Guide Service, and Jamie Dietman from What’s Up Outdoors, who volunteers for multiple events at Camp Ripley.)
I spoke with World War II veterans, Iraq War vets, and everything in between. The stories were captivating. The situations surrounding their deployments don’t seem like real life. To think that someone had to go through the pain and horrors of war seemed unnatural.
“We were neutralizing some islands that the Japanese were on in the Marianas area and a couple of my buddies were shot there,” 93-year old Clint Fladland said. “I think I had a guardian Angel or something, because I lost my wingman on one of those missions…I lived a treasured life.”
Some of the hell they went through shouldn’t happen to anyone. Yet they did it. And lived to tell about it.
“We were invaded by Kamikaze pilots,” Fladland continued. “(They) were trying to make to the harbor. But not a one made it to the harbor.”
“There were some (Japanese soldiers) in caves and they caused us some problems. In fact one night I heard a noise and it woke me up….I grabbed my .38 and a Japanese soldier had (murdered) a pilot two doors from me. Before I could get my gun up, the guy next to him shot him.”
Then he spoke about having lunch with someone much younger who was in the Iraq war. Two vastly different experiences yet so very alike. The two men generations apart finding a common bond.
That is exactly what events like this are all about.
“We try to team older veterans with younger veterans so the current war-era veterans can spend time on the water (at the Trolling 4 Troops event) or, in this case…in the woods,” Randy Tesdahl, Minnesota American Legion Adjutant General explained. “It isn’t long before they start realizing that those experiences are very similar.”
“It’s definitely an awesome benefit for me because I lost my wife a year ago. I’m alone…they want me to get out and about,” Fladland said. “I mean this is vitamin D (pointing at the sky). I sleep better. I’m in a PTSD group at the VA. At times I feel on top of the world.”
I interviewed a number of people for MNSJ Radio (listen to them this weekend) and each time I brought up the word “camaraderie”, they would light up. While this is technically a deer hunt, it really gives veterans a chance to be around other vets-people who get it. Brothers and sisters who can relate.
“(The hunt) gives some actual positive healing effects,” Tesdahl said. “People are realizing that more today than ever. It’s important to get folks back together to share those experiences they had before going into the service.”
Despite the high winds that greeted hunters, there was no reason to be discouraged. “No matter what the weather-to see the smiles (is why we do this),” said Department Commander for the Minnesota American Legion Peggy Moon.
For 24 years Camp Ripley has opened up it’s 53,000 acres to disabled veterans for a fall deer hunt. They also do a spring turkey hunt and there is a fishing event each summer as well, Trolling 4 The Troops.
Korean war vet Ben Gorski was participating in the deer hunt for the first time, but has hunted turkeys twice in the spring.
“It was great, “Gorski explained. “We got a turkey each year.”
“(The deer hunt) started out with some folks in the veterans arena in this part of the state,” Tesdahl continued. “They wanted to put together a hunt for disabled veterans to give them an opportunity to get back in the woods. Being from Minnesota, we always think about deer camp…certainly while we’re in the service we think about those things when we’re deployed overseas. This was an opportunity to bring those folks with disabilities that they’ve incurred because of their service to our country a chance to come back to Minnesota and get back into the hunting and fishing environment.”
While the disabled vets are hunting on one part of the installation, deployed soldiers are taking part in another hunt. The disabled vets are using shotguns capable of firing slugs, while the deployed soldiers are armed with bows. Some hunters have come equipped with crossbows. It’s a two-day hunt where either sex can be harvested.
New stands were bought and set up this year courtesy of Veterans 4 Veterans (V4V). V4V is a trust fund managed by the Minnesota American Legion, Disabled American Veterans of Minnesota, the Military Order of the Purple Heart Department of Minnesota and Department of Minnesota Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“We’re so excited about being able to buy new deer stands,” said Don Pankake, Chairman of the board for V4V. “The ones they used to have here were built out of plywood. It would take 8 people to move them. They’d have a ramp and roll a person up there. It would take 25 people to get it set up! Now they are all on wheels, they just roll them out and elevate that stand. They’re all enclosed in case there is bad weather.”
They spent $21,000 on the new stands that are handicap-accessible with scissorlifts that raise the hunter above the forest floor. They’re warm, dry and offer safety and security for the vets.
“There’s nothing nicer than seeing a fella that’s got one arm, in an electric wheelchair, with a deer laying out there,” Pankake continued. “And…that just makes a perfect day for somebody. It’s a wonderful thing and it’s why we do this.”
I’d heard about Camp Ripley hunts and the vast wildlife sanctuary that is within it’s borders, but it wasn’t until I was able to see it with my own eyes that I could appreciate it. Deer were seen foraging throughout the day as we headed in from the range.
While visitors can walk through our state’s military history in the Minnesota Military Museum, trips can also be scheduled for the Environmental Center.
“What we’re trying to do is a collection of all the living things that are housed here on the installation,” explained Jay Brezinka, the Environmental Supervisor at Camp Ripley. “We probably have about 250 to 275 mounted birds and mammals here within the museum.”
All but one of them is native to Camp Ripley. They are used to educate the troops that are staying and training there. But also to educate kids and other civic groups that pass through. “We work a lot with the school districts in the 3 county area. We probably give talks to about 4,500 kids each year.”
The one exception is a wood grouse that was donated from the Norway Soldiers that stay each winter during a Norwegian Exchange. Gifts are exchanged and one year a wood grouse was brought. “It’s a forested grouse species in their country. It’s almost the size of a turkey,” Brezinka said.
Before the hunt begins, guns are sighted in, volunteers from Midwest Outdoors Unlimited take blinds and chairs and set them up along various locations in the woods. Afterward everyone gathers in an old hanger that’s been renovated to an event center and lounge. During our meal, the volunteers were recognized and prizes were given away.
Dennis Erie, the St Cloud VA Volunteer Coordinator has been behind the scenes of the Camp Ripley hunt since the beginning and will be retiring after this year. As a thank you, he was offered special recognition and awarded an M1 rifle.
The hunts take place today (Wednesday 10/8)) and tomorrow (Thursday 10/9). A lunch is provided by the Patriot Guard Riders between the morning and evening hunts.
Turnout has been excellent.
“This year it has grown,” Tesdahl said. “We haven’t had to face (turning veterans away), when we get to that point we’ll have to deal with that, but we try to be as accommodating as we possibly can. By giving ourselves the ability to grow this year we’ve been able to accommodate those folks.”
Other opportunities include a spring turkey hunt and a summer fishing event (Trolling 4 Troops). Learn more here.
Pictures will be added as the deer hunts progress. Check back to see how they did!