Disabled vets hunt gobblers

Published 8:20 pm Saturday, April 11, 2009

Just when disabled veterans might be feeling forgotten, several local residents and businesses teamed up this weekend to make sure they know they are remembered.

“They think people have forgotten them, and this is to show them that no, we haven’t,” said J.C. Gaitley, a volunteer for the second annual Wounded Warriors Spring Gobbler Hunt.

The event, organized by Rob and Cindy Zepp, sponsored by numerous organizations and supported by dozens of volunteers, came together Friday and Saturday with 12 hunters participating. Each of the hunters is a disabled veteran. Their disabilities range from mild to severe, with some partially paralyzed. They have fought around the world, from Vietnam to Grenada and Iraq to Afghanistan.

Email newsletter signup

“I had a vision that veterans were coming back, and they can’t hunt,” Rob Zepp said. “I wanted to get them in the woods and show them they can still hunt.”

The Zepps organized the first turkey hunt for disabled veterans last year. Eight hunters participated, but only one bagged a bird. Nevertheless, all eight came back from the woods all smiles, Gaitley said.

“You would have thought every one of those eight hunters got that one bird,” Gaitley said. “It’s a spiritual awakening for a lot of these guys.”

This year, hunters gathered Friday at the Zepps’ Somerton home to get to know each other, learn the rules of the road, eat venison chili and have devotionals, led by J.R. Ruggiero, a member of the outdoor ministry at Nansemond River Baptist Church.

Saturday, each hunter went out with a caller and a videographer, who recorded the entire experience for each hunter to have a memento of their time in the woods.

Wild turkeys are one of the most difficult animals to hunt, Zepp said, because of their skittish nature, keen eyesight and mating habits.

“Normally, the toms wait for the hens to come to them, so you’re already trying to defeat nature,” Zepp said. Typically, turkey hunters lean up against a tree with their turkey call, trying to make the toms come to them.

However, for this hunt, the hunters used pop-up blinds set up on the property of about 10 landowners. Some of the hunters’ disabilities prevented them from sitting on the ground and leaning against a tree, so the blinds helped accommodate the veterans’ disabilities. The organizers used donated golf carts to get the veterans to their spots in the woods.

“This is a great opportunity for disabled vets to get out and get the fresh air,” said Tom Queck, a Vietnam veteran who is commander of American Legion Post 79.

“It’s great that they put this stuff on for us,” Queck said. “I’m excited to be here.”

Another veteran, Stephen Smith, was at least year’s hunt, and enjoyed it so much that he came back.

“I had a wild time,” he said. “I’m really thankful about all the stuff they do to put this on.”

J.R. Ruggiero, who works with the outdoor ministry at Nansemond River Baptist Church, came to the first day of the hunt to volunteer and lead a turkey-related devotional.

“Since their injury, a lot of them have lost hope,” he said. “If it weren’t for them doing what they do, we would not have the freedom to do what we do.”

Ruggiero said that almost no disability prevents a veteran from hunting, as long as there are people willing to help them get into the woods.

“We are here to provide to them, cater to them,” he said. “As long as they can see, they can hunt.”

The sponsors of the hunt were: Virginia Hunters Education Association, Food Lion, Jim Crumley’s Outfitter Tuff, Carts Unlimited, Hunters for the Hungry, Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Nansemond River Baptist Church, Buck Gardner Calls, Bass Pro, Safari Land, Hunter Specialties, Somerton Hunt Club, and Borderline Hunt Club.

Landowners that contributed the use of the land were: Somerton Hunt Club, Borderline Hunt Club, Allen Winslow, Clarence Riddick, Franklin Marzullo, Rob Zepp, Coleman Boyce, Brad Byrd, Richard Gwaltney and Bill Schieber.