Happy hunting among veterans and family
Published 5:53 pm Thursday, March 15, 2018
Mike Cunningham reloaded his Remington 12-gauge shotgun, his fingers cold in the morning of Feb. 17 in Carrsville, just outside of Suffolk.
Then he heard the telltale flapping. That was his cue to aim high and pull the trigger. A crackling of shots could be heard throughout the massive clearing as more pheasants were released from the tower in the center.
The faint sound of dropping pellets could be heard between the sharp bangs with each volley.
“You can hear it raining like ice,” said Travis Luter, the volunteer driving around the clearing on his four-wheeler.
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Cunningham, a 31-year Army veteran, had good aim as he picked off two more pheasants to add to his haul.
“This is the place to be right here,” he said with a laugh and another quick reload.
The fourth annual Legacy Ranch Tower Shoot was held on private property owned by Carl Outland and was organized by Mike Luter and his family with Freedom Hunters, a military outreach program for active duty and veterans, their families and others wounded or injured to participate in outdoor adventures.
“We all do it just to give back to the service members who have sacrificed a lot for our country,” said Bud DePlatchett, Freedom Hunters East Coast coordinator.
This year brought out approximately 40 hunters. There were active duty men and women and veterans with decades of service. DePlatchett said this was their biggest one yet.
“This is probably our largest hunting event nationwide,” he said. “I’m not aware of any other shoots that have more recipients at them than this one.”
Mike Luter, owner of Arrowhead Environmental Services, and his wife, Judy, started organizing the event four years ago with their family to offer camaraderie to those that served, as well as a new experience for first-time hunters.
“This is a great way to bring my whole family together to show the veterans that we appreciate what they’ve done,” Luter said.
The hunters formed two circles around the tower in the clearing. Approximately 240 pheasants were released in groups, and 159 were harvested at the end of the day. Their meat was distributed equally among all the hungry hunters.
“Their meat is a little darker, but it’s really good,” Wayne Ford said.
Select birds had colored streamers attached to them that represented a potential prize for the lucky shooter. Prizes included top-of-the-line guns, ODU basketball tickets and fishing trips.
It was the first time that Army Staff Sgt. Chip Heusinger participated in the annual bird shoot, but he managed to snag a streamer for his pick of a bottle of donated bourbon or whiskey.
“I love it,” Heusinger said as he held his gun in gloved hands. “It’s definitely an experience.”
About 10 black, brown and yellow labs were racing towards each downed bird. They came back to their owners with trophies and their tongues hanging proudly.
“I feel like this has got to be the best day ever for the dogs,” Navy veteran Al Nugent chuckled. “All of them are getting something today.”
Steve Southern was taking aim from a state-of-the-art track chair. The treads of the chair allowed him to navigate the mud and dirt with ease.
“I couldn’t do it without it,” Southern said. The retired industrial mechanic bagged more than four pheasants by the time the final shots were heard. “Even if I didn’t shoot, I’d still be having a good time.”
Coffee and bacon-covered doughnuts were served in the morning, then chili after the shooting was done. There were also door prizes for knives and gift certificates.
“A lot of them have never been out in the country, so we want to make them feel at home,” Judy Luter said. “We try to make it very welcoming.”
The experience is therapeutic for many of the veterans. They share stories of their time served along with jostling each other for missed shots.
Jake Young, a 22-year U.S. Navy veteran, spent 23 months in the hospital after suffering massive trauma to the head during his 12th deployment. He medically retired in 2014 and then got involved with Freedom Hunters. Since then, he’s been with them for elk and deer hunting.
“It’s getting me back outside,” Young said, adding that the support of the volunteers and fellow veterans has been tremendous. “It’s really good to have that camaraderie.”
Nugent said it’s great for the older veterans to be able to connect with the younger men and women actively serving today. One of those is Taurean Saunders, 31, who has been in the U.S. Navy for 12 years. Saunders said the morning of veterans and sport is stress relief.
“We shoot weapons while we’re on duty, so why not do it in your off time and actually enjoy it?” Saunders said.
The event is called a “legacy” tower shoot because the Luters plan to keep this going through their children, their children’s spouses and eventually their grandkids.
“Our kids are learning how to do this, and they’re going to continue this down the road so when we’re long gone, we can still continue to provide this day of normalcy for veterans,” he said.