On the Hunt: Wounded warriors track, harvest mule deer
November 8, 2011
Their days started like that of any other Soldier. They were up before the sun. A handful of breakfast burritos and a few pots of coffee later, they set off. Guides drove each one of them through the New Mexico desert to a different location.
Quietly, they climbed a metal staircase in the dark to a fiberglass box called a blind. Then they sat. They waited for the first glimpse of light to peek over the horizon so they could see what they were hunting. Mule deer-- bucks with three points on each antler. For experienced hunters, those are bronze medal deer.
The first shot rang through the air at 6:52 a.m., Oct. 21. Staff Sgt. Corey Dalton, a Soldier assigned to the Warrior Transition Battalion, was the first to secure his harvest. He shot a buck from Pine Draw Blind, with the help of his guide, Steve Foutz, founder of High Desert Ranch.
"I wasn't nervous or anxious," said Dalton. "But I was a little excited."
Dalton has been deployed to Iraq three times. He was wounded in 2010 when his vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device.
Four wounded warriors, all assigned to Fort Bliss, embarked on a four-day mule deer hunting trip at High Desert Ranch deep in the New Mexico desert. Along with HDR, the hunt was organized by retired Lt. Col. Terry Hoke, a member of Safari Club International.
Hoke began planning the hunt at a banquet in February when HDR approached him about sponsoring wounded warriors. It finally came to fruition Oct. 20 to 23.
"This is one of the premiere hunting lodges and staff," said Hoke. "They have a friendly spirit of fellowship and have spent a lot of money on these Soldiers."
Spc. Mitchel Holland barely speaks above a whisper.
After a rocket propelled grenade exploded while deployed to Afghanistan, Holland received shrapnel wounds to his head and face, and was assigned to the WTB in June. Two months later Holland had a dirt bike accident and collapsed both of his lungs. He now has a tracheotomy, a tube down his throat that allows him to breathe.
Holland sat in West Pine Blind on the evening of Oct. 21. Bucks available for harvest were few and far between that night. Then, from about 450 yards away, Holland and his guide, Brian Cline, HDR hunt manager, spotted a buck. It was too far away to shoot.
So they did the only thing they could do. They stalked it. Then his shot rang through the air. Holland had gotten his first mule deer.
"When I got my kill, it was really cool," said Holland. "We had to stalk it, and I had to low crawl to it."
Capt. Don Porschien, WTB operations officer, sat stoic inside Pine Draw Blind as the sun began to set, Oct. 22. Fawns and does approached the "drinker," a drinking hole, in front of the blind. A few bucks meandered through. Some were too large to shoot; some were too small.
As the evening drew to a close, a buck with a black band above its eyes made his way to the drinker. Blaine Schmidt, Porschien's guide, looked through binoculars and said it was a good buck. He gave Porschien permission to shoot.
Without hesitation, Porschien pulled the trigger. The shot sliced through the air as several deer scattered from the drinker. His buck was hit. Porschien retrieved his buck.
"While I was excited that a suitable deer had come into view, I remained calm and quiet, concentrating on the shot, and prepared to take the shot," said Porschien. "I didn't feel overly excited, though I felt a slight bit weak in the knees as I climbed down the ladder out of the blind."
Porschien sustained injuries during a Humvee accident while deployed to Iraq in 2010.
Several miles away, Pfc. Keyan Brown, currently assigned to the WTB, sat in his blind with his guide, Richard Stockmar. Bucks had been evading Brown for nearly two days. But like the other three Soldiers, he finally got his chance on a buck hidden just out of sight behind a tree. Right as the sun went down, Brown's rifle rang true. This was his first hunting experience.
"My favorite part was getting outside and enjoying the open air," said Brown. "I'm locked in the barracks and hospital too much."
Brown sustained injuries while deployed, receiving shrapnel wounds to his face and hip from an 82mm mortar round detonating 10 feet away from him while dismounted.
Once the bucks were shot, the Soldiers' work was not yet done. The bucks still had to be skinned, caped, measured and carved-- which each Soldier also participated in.
High Desert Ranch rests on 70,000 acres in east-central New Mexico. Within that is 3,200 acres of Class A park, home to hundreds of mule deer. It also houses a 12,000 square-foot log lodge and a certified chef.
"This place brings a peace of mind," said Dalton. "It gives you a feeling of home where you can really enjoy yourself."
"These guys really took care of us," said Holland. "It's a nicer environment. I've never had a guide show me the good spots before."
The Safari Club will host their ninth annual gala at the El Paso Convention and Performing Arts Center, Jan. 28 and29. Each Soldier is invited to participate in that event. Additionally, four taxidermists from El Paso have volunteered their services to mount each Soldier's buck for free.
The hospitality and quality of the High Desert Ranch are beyond compare, said Hoke.
The Soldiers whole-heartedly thanked them for their support.