By Mollie MillerNovember 2, 2009
Laying on a pile of wood, metal, leaves and assorted hunting equipment, 1st Sgt. Aaron Daniels gazed up at the Fort Polk, La. woods that surrounded him and wondered how in the world he had ended up there.
Just a few moments earlier, the senior noncommissioned officer of an AH-64 Apache helicopter maintenance platoon had been sitting quietly in a tree stand positioned about 15 feet off the ground. With his bow and arrow ready, Daniels had been waiting patiently for a deer to emerge from the thick woods when his tree stand disintegrated around him.
"The woods were a blur as I fell to the ground," Daniels said recently as recounted the tale of his serious fall. "It seemed only to take a split second and, as I lay there trying to figure out what happened, I realized that my whole body hurt and I had no idea where my arrows were or how badly I was injured."
After determining that his arrows were not stuck in him and that his legs and back didn't "feel" broken, Daniels cautiously got to his feet and limped/crawled a half mile back to his truck. Because Daniels did not have a cell phone with him, was hunting alone and had told no one where he would be hunting, crawling/limping back to his truck was the only way he was going to get out of the woods.
During an emergency room visit later that day, doctors told Daniels that he had sprained both ankles and both knees and broken his leg. Though his injuries were painful, Daniels still considers himself a lucky man.
"I found out later that there had been two other tree stand accidents at Fort Polk that year and that the two people had broken their backs and both were paralyzed from the waist down," he said. "I was the only one who got off with only minor injuries."
Every year, millions of people just like Daniels venture into fields and forests around the United States seeking the "thrill" of a good hunt. A recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey found that in 2006, 12.5 million people took 185 million hunting trips and spent nearly $23 billion on their chosen sport.
Counted among the millions whose eyes are set on everything from big bucks to wild hogs are thousands of Soldiers and their Family members. While Soldiers and hunting seem like a perfect match and the number of recent Soldier hunting-related accidents is relatively low, the potential for serious injury, like Daniels' broken leg, still exists. During the past two years, three Soldiers were seriously injured while hunting. The three injuries involved an accidental discharge, carbon monoxide poisoning and a clothing fire.
"The most common mistakes people make include taking things for granted and not having a plan before they set out on the hunt," Bill Zaharis, veteran hunter and executive director of U.S. Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center Future Operations, said. "Most accidents occur on hunts close to home, when someone just goes out by themselves for a morning or afternoon afield."
The National Forest Service recently released a list of steps every hunter should take to keeps themselves safe during a hunting outing. The National Forest Service advises hunters to always tell someone where they will be hunting and avoid hunting alone; check the weather forecast, dress properly and be prepared for the worst possible weather conditions; wear enough blaze orange to be highly visible to other hunters; check hunting equipment before and after each hunt and maintain it properly; never carry a loaded weapon in your vehicle or while riding a 4-wheeler, crossing a fence or climbing a tree; and always identify your target before shooting.
Like any successful Army mission, Zaharis, a retired Army aviator, said hunting trips must always begin with safety in mind. The same Composite Risk Management steps Soldiers use at work should also be used before and during a hunting outing to keep all parties involved safe.
"It doesn't matter whether you going on that dream hunt to Africa for a couple weeks or just going out to a training area on post after work to hunt for a few hours, you need to have a plan," he said. "Hunting is a very safe sport when you use common sense and don't take unnecessary risk. Just like any other outdoor activity, you should be physically capable to handle the rigors, check and heed the weather, know and be proficient with your equipment, and think through what might go wrong and be prepared."
Daniels acknowledges he did several things wrong the day he fell from his tree stand including failing to tell anyone where he was hunting, hunting alone, failing to notice several "stress cracks" his tree stand and failing to wear his tree stand safety harness. The avid hunter said he learned some important lessons that day, lessons he passes on to other hunters as often as he can.
Daniels and Zaharis encourage every hunter, whether they are new to the sport or have been doing it for years, to attend hunter education classes offered by Family, Morale, Welfare and Recreation Outdoor Recreation teams at most Army installations throughout the country.
"You are never too old to learn something new," Zaharis said. "I've been hunting for 35 years and teach hunter education but I'm always looking for new information to not only make me a more successful hunter but also to ensure I'm able to hunt for another 35 years."
Today, Daniels is retired and instructs the hunter education course at Fort Campbell, Ky. Daniels estimates that he has offered hunting safety tips to hundreds of Soldiers and their Family members over the years and is happy to know that there is a whole generation of Army hunters who are safer because of the lessons he has shared.
"Safety is at the heart of every good hunting trip," Daniels said. "Passing this knowledge to others and helping to keep them from harm and injury makes me feel like I am doing some good in this world. I sleep better at night knowing that I get to help others stay safe."
For more information about hunting safety, visit the National Forest Service Web site at www.fs.fed.us or the Internationa Hunter Education Association Web site at www.ihea.com. Information about hunting and many other fall and winter safety topics is also available at https://safety.army.mil under the Fall/Winter Safety Campaign tab.