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By Mindy Kralicek, from the September/October 2013 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine
Surging through the blackness are four sets of twin headlights reflecting drizzle and gleaming on the wet pavement. A caravan of pickups arrives at the Iowa Army Ammunition Plant front gate, just west of Middletown in Des Moines County. It’s opening day of muzzleloader deer season and four wounded veterans of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are anticipating the opportunity to hunt with DNR conservation officers.
A uniformed guard checks an identity at the gate and the trucks are waved forward. Reflective signs direct the way through the darkness. One by one the trucks turn off the road, left or right, until the fourth truck pulls off into a graveled parking space. A shiny cement walkway serpentines and surrounds a brown 10-foot by 10-foot steel-sided, steel-roofed building.
Conservation officer Terry Nims pulls his camo rain jacket hood over his head. He lifts the truck’s door lever and swings his legs out and down. Shoulders humped against the downpour, he splashes his way to the blind door and tests it, then sticks a key in the lock and twists it. He waves for his companion to come ahead.
Inside, the window opposite the door faces northeast. Nims pulls up the window covering and next to the 50- to 60-yard clearing ahead, faintly backlit trees stand at attention.
Inside the blind Nick is eager to be useful. He pulls up the window coverings on the building’s sides and listens to the roof patter. Minutes later the rain begins to slow and the water drains off the sidewalk. He and Nims go back to the pickup and return with their encased rifles, tripods, an extra folding chair, snacks and water bottles.
There is a bar on each window that can lie in brackets at various heights. Nick pulls up a chair and places the bar where it is comfortable for his sight. He pours powder from his powder bag into the end of the barrel. Tearing a couple of pieces of electrical tape from a roll, Nick forms a cross on the end of the rifle barrel to keep moisture out. The bullet will disintegrate the tape as it blows through.
As the hidden sun rises, red, shingle and pin oaks, backed by eastern red cedars, sycamores and ash trees, are to the left and right. The wet leaves are vivid red, gold and yellow in the low light. The woodland is silent, but for the dripping of rain.
Nick and Nims speak in whispers. They stay back in the dark areas of the blind so deer won’t see them backlit through the side windows.
The blind is set up to catch deer coming from the northeast, where turnips were planted by the arsenal. “They’ll stay under the foliage, unless it warms up,” Nims contemplates.
“Don’t worry,” says Nick. “I’ll count four legs and a head before I take a shot. My wife told me she is okay with my hunting, but not to bring in anything that has a face attached to it.”
Nick has light hair, fair skin and a cheery disposition that lights up the dark day. It’s hard to believe he is a wounded warrior. The 42-year-old has a wife and a 2-year-old and still serves in the Army as a senior paralegal non-commissioned officer at the Middletown Iowa Army Ammunition plant.
The drizzle quiets to a fine mist. Cardinals and sparrows begin to chirp and anticipation builds for the possibility of seeing deer. Each of the four veterans in the Wounded Warrior hunt has an any-sex deer tag.
After receiving paralegal training at Fort Benjamin, Ind., Nick served in Germany, Honduras and in the former Yugoslavia until the 2001 call for war. His last tour of duty was in Iraq.
“I learned to sight distance playing football,” says Nick, as he watches a squirrel jumping from limb to limb in a tree about 10 yards out. “Of all the animals I’ve watched, squirrels are my favorite,” he says. “Did you know squirrels actually date to find a mate? He’ll show her his food sources and if she likes them, they mate.”
In response to the hunters’ grumbling stomachs, thunder crashes in the distance. The wind picks up.
“That’s a dichotomy,” says Nick. “I put out food to watch them, but then there’s nothing quite like a squirrel pot pie.”
Nims touches Nick’s shoulder. “There’s a red-tailed hawk perched on the tree out of the south window,” whispers Nims. Sure enough the hawk’s gaze is fixed on Nick’s squirrel and it dives for it.
The rain increases.
“My grandpa fished and hunted for small game,” continues Nick. “But I wasn’t introduced to hunting. I chose to do it myself. Look at that tree. Three thousand leaves and they all face different directions. Each limb is different. Hey, there’s the squirrel. He made it.” Nick nods as he speaks, confirming his belief the squirrel would outsmart the hawk.
“The Army has been good to me. It is a community of its own. I had 18-month and two-year assignments to high stress jobs. I still love what I do and why I do it. But, since my daughter was born, I can’t leave her with that same focus—that same tempo—and put my heart into it again.
“We moved to Muscatine because of Mike (another wounded veteran at the hunt). I think of Mike as a brother from another mother. Mike and I went on a road trip to see his wife in Muscatine. The place had a way of life, a combination of industry and agriculture. My wife and I would make Muscatine a stopover every time we went through. We decided it was where we wanted to live.
“I had a couple of concussion impact injuries, which is why I’m in the (Wounded Warriors) program. During my last tour in Iraq, an IUD blew up behind the truck I was driving. Lost two guys behind us.
“I’ve had numerous other injuries. Your body breaks down. It’s not made to carry 60 pounds of crap. Your knees, ankles, feet—they wear out.”
The thunder builds in intensity.
“Nothing is going to be coming in this rain, says Nims. “There’s nothing to motivate a deer to come out from under an oak tree.”
The two place everything in the blind as they found it, pack up and drive back to the armory. Conservation officer Paul C. Kay, who made the Wounded Warrior hunt arrangements, has hot chili ready for the group.
Steve, 43, has a weathered face with a cleft in his chin, a mustache and intense dark brown eyes that look down a lot. At other times he locks into another person’s eyes intensely.
He keeps his cap on, goofs off a lot and has a self-deprecating humor that is witty but harsh. Constantly wiggling one foot under the lunch table and picking at his fingers, Steve mutters his story.
“I joined the National Guard when I was 17—a junior in Muscatine High School. It was something I wanted to do. My family has always been in the military. I wanted to serve my country also.
“My parents signed the consent form and I went to basic training. My unit was stationed near Muscatine for two years. Then I went into active duty in the Army for three years and got out. I joined the National Guard Reserves and served eight more years.
“I wanted to continue to serve. I was sent overseas to Iraq after 9-11 happened. Then I worked as a guard—volunteered for enforced protection at the Camp Dodge gate. Worked third shift, for a year.
“I was deployed to Fort McCoy for four months. Shipped to Kuwait and up into Iraq. Trained for combat. I was a truck driver from June 2003 to April 2004 in Iraq. Came home 04-04-04.
“I tried to work, but couldn’t because of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I have 70 percent PTSD, 25 percent hearing loss from IEDs (roadside bombs) and 5 percent knee disability. In all, I spent 19 years in the National Guard and Army Reserve.
“I live back in Muscatine now, by myself. I’ve been married three times, but none took. My last wife said she couldn’t deal with me anymore. Left me on our fifth anniversary.
“I didn’t hunt as a kid, but I hunted after the Army. I enjoy it. I’m glad the Wounded Warriors program recognizes our tours. In the service we’re used to carrying a weapon and being on edge. Hunting is like that. The adrenaline rush. Whatever I fish or hunt is put on the table. I’m living more like they did in the old days—eating off the land. I maybe spend $30 a month at the grocery store.”
Steve has several tattoos. He talks about three of them.
“The screaming eagle is holding a tattered American battle flag...American Justice. Iraq operation. Freedom. Skulls for faces. The large mallet is delivering judgment and punishment... The barbed wire is about my third wife. When we divorced, I needed to feel pain. That probably doesn’t make sense.
“I really enjoy the hunting experience, eating and talking with the other people. They know me by name and the experience I’ve had. Call them up and I’m a human being—not a client or something.”
“Last year it snowed for the hunt. I shot a doe,” says Steve. “This morning we saw a flock of turkeys, following each other in a line, not 30 feet from the lift blind.”
At age 36, Clay is a fit, stout man with a blank expression that only brightens at the mention of his family. His two sons and wife came with him to Burlington and are at the Pizzazz Motel, so the boys could swim in the morning. Clay sat with the other veterans over lunch, but interacted minimally. He suffers from constant migraine headaches, limited mobility and arthritis.
“My dad started me hunting when I was a kid. I grew up in Marshalltown. I went to Wartburg College majoring in biology. I joined the Army when I was 20. I wanted to join the Army Special Forces after high school, but my dad made me a deal to go to college for a year and play soccer.
“I was in Intelligence. I was shot in the right shoulder while out hiking in 2003 in Fallujah, Iraq. In 2004 I joined Special Forces and went back to Iraq. During my third trip to Afghanistan, in 2010, I was shot down in a helicopter. There were nine of us in the helicopter. Four, including me, had head injuries. The pilot broke his back. The rest were banged up. The pilot did a tremendous job of getting that helicopter landed the way he did. He was a real hero.
“I went through two years of cognitive rehab at Ft. Bragg, N.C. Had to learn how to talk, how to read. I’m retired from the Army now and am a stay-at-home dad. My sons are 3 and 9 years of age.
“We moved back home to Marshalltown last year. My wife was my high school sweetheart. We’ve been married 15 years. We married right after I joined the service.
“I haven’t been hunting since I got back to Marshalltown, but I think I’ll start again. We didn’t see any deer this morning. Back in the Special Forces, I was all about weapons and I have an extensive gun collection. I’m glad to have the opportunity to hunt today, especially on public land like this where a balance of it is left natural. It feels comfortable carrying a weapon and being outside.”
Mike’s hair is shaved military style and he has a goatee and mustache. His face is serious, an expression embedded from ongoing physical pain. He uses a cane.
“Nick was my sponsor when I came to Fort Carson, Colo. He and his wife April picked me up at the airport. That was two years ago and we’ve been friends since.
“I was born and raised in Muscatine until I was 12 years old. My parents got good jobs in California, so we moved and lived near San Jose for five years. Then we went back to Muscatine for a couple of years.
“I met my wife Trish in 1995. She lived in Clarence in an apartment across the hall from my parents. We got married and moved to Tulsa for four years where we went to school. I was going to the Spartan School of Aeronautics to be a pilot, but decided to join the Army in 1999. We had a baby on the way and I needed a better paying job to support a family than the school job I had.
“I became a paralegal in the Army, just like Nick did. The Army tests you on a whole bunch of subjects and there are things they think you would be good at. I was color-blind, so that took me out of some job possibilities.
“They say you are this, that or the other, but if you’re low enough on the totem pole, you’re the ‘hey you’ guy.
“I worked in detainee operations in Iraq. If someone was grabbed in a raid, I was the person they saw when they were taken to the base. I kept track of them.
“My main injuries happened when I was leaving my office at Ft. Carson, Colo. I was hit head-on riding my motorcycle. My right knee was torn up pretty badly. I lost the kneecap and part of the femur and hit the back of my head on the pavement when I was thrown. It was a severe injury.
“My short-term memory is bad. So are my balance and coordination. I do things slowly. I was medically retired from the Army in 2006 from a conglomeration of injuries over the years.
“I’m primarily a stay-at-home dad and run a small farm—10 acres. The farm keeps me motivated to get out of bed—the animals don’t feed themselves.
“When I was retired I went bonkers the first couple of months. We moved out to the country into a big enough house with enough land to do what we’re doing. We have chickens and sell eggs, we have dairy goats and my wife makes soaps and cheeses. I love it, whether it’s behind a desk or behind the steering wheel of the tractor. The more activity I do, the longer I can stave off the wheelchair. The type of injuries I have only get worse.
“I’m in a rehab program that allows me to have a tractor with hand controls. Equipment automatically attaches when I back the tractor up to it. The adaptable equipment is essential to our farm operations. The VA rehab office and Easter Seals’ Iowa Rural Solutions helps people be independent. I’m one of their ambassadors. I talk with people about how valuable this program is. They bend over backwards to help people who need it.
“I’ve been in Wounded Warriors for two years. I get to hang out with the guys who’ve been there and it is easy to talk with them. We need to take advantage of these programs so they will be there for the guys coming behind us. I’ve gotten to do a lot of neat things. I got to go to Alaska for a week to hunt bear. Iowa’s program particularly does a lot. I couldn’t go out hunting if it wasn’t for this.
“Trish. I don’t know what I would have done without her these 17 years. Every morning she wakes up smiling at me. She’s saved me from myself, one way or another. I was in a deep depression when I got out and she stuck with me. I couldn’t have gotten out of that without her.”
During the afternoon hunt, Mike harvested one deer.
To support the Iowa Fish and Game Conservation Officers Association Wounded Warrior hunts, contact Paul C. Kay, DNR Conservation Officer, P.O. Box 27, Burlington, IA 52601 or 319-759-0751.
Learn more about the Wounded Warriors project at www.woundedwarriorproject.org.