By Joan MichelJune 11, 2009
POTTER COUNTY, Pa. (Army News Service, June 11, 2009) - On a chilly morning in May, nine veterans of the Iraq war roused themselves at 3:30 a.m. to climb the hills of northern Pennsylvania in search of wild turkey. Bleary-eyed from a boisterous late-night camp fire and fueled by hot coffee, the men assembled their gear and weapons for the hunt in the darkness of the pre-dawn hours.
Guides and hunters piled into the all-terrain vehicles, wheelchairs and crutches in the back, which would take them up the mountain to get in position for the hunt. The veterans, who had suffered loss of limb and other injuries in the Iraq war, would return to camp with wild turkeys in tow.
LEEK Hunting and Mountain Preserve in Potter County, Penn., offers disabled veterans outdoor recreational activities in a handicapped-accessible environment. Facilities located on the 140-acre property are designed for wheelchair and vehicle access.
"This has been a dream of ours for a long time," said Edward Fisher, one of four siblings involved in LEEK, after which the nonprofit is named - retired Coast Guard Master Chief Petty Officer Lewis T. Fisher, retired Col. Elaine Fisher, Edward J. Fisher and Kate Fisher - and dedicated to the memory of their father, Lewis Fisher, who taught them the joys of outdoor recreation.
"The veterans have sacrificed so much for our country. Offering hunting and outdoor recreation is one small way we can thank them for their service and help them regain their confidence and physical well-being."
The veterans travelled to LEEK from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington for five days of hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation.
"This is a phenomenal hunting trip in every respect," said Ross Colquhoun, a program manager for Walter Reed. "From the time of arrival, our warriors are treated like hometown heroes and totally welcomed by the community. The hunting and camaraderie with LEEK personnel and their guides was just as spectacular. And our guys never go home empty-handed."
Staff Sgt. (promotable) Preston Jackson shot his turkey early in the week.
"I got to sleep in while the others got up at 3:30 to go hunting," Jackson said. He then donated his bird to a program at Walter Reed that teaches cooking skills as rehabilitation for Traumatic Brain Injury patients.
Jackson has served in the Army for eight years, and was injured on his fourth deployment. He broke his back and lost his left leg below the knee after his truck ran over an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan's Paktia Province, May 28, 2008.
Jackson grew up hunting with his family and enjoys the ability to hunt and fish despite his disabilities.
"The first time I went hunting after being injured I couldn't even stand up," said Jackson, who has gone on several hunting trips sponsored by Walter Reed. "Now I can walk without canes. Any day in the woods is better than a day in a hospital.
"I grew up hunting. Going up there (to LEEK) was a blast -- we had a lot of fun. You feel like you're a normal guy again -- back home with your buddies hunting and fishing," Jackson said, adding that he hopes to return for deer hunting in the fall.
"These guys first come into my office pretty beat up -- they're injured and facing life-altering disabilities," Colquhoun said. "I call it the 'wow' factor. The difference between the time I first meet them and then after weeks of rehabilitation, which includes taking the guys out hunting and fishing -- Wow! It is unbelievable what these guys can do. They ask, 'Can I still do the things I did before I was injured'' and the answer is 100-percent yes."
During their stay, visitors of LEEK enjoyed home-cooked meals and spent time with experienced local outdoorsmen, many of whom are also veterans.
At the end of the week, the veterans were honored guests at a ceremony marking the official launch of LEEK Hunting and Mountain Preserve. About 85 people from the community and Washington area traveled to Potter County to mark the occasion.
Tom Bowman, aide to Senator Arlen Specter, was the keynote speaker at the ceremony and expressed his gratitude to the Soldiers for their extraordinary contributions and sacrifices. Bowman died of a heart attack one week later.
There are an estimated 1.3 million disabled veterans living in the United States, and more than 1,200 servicemen and women have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with physical disabilities that limit their range of activities.