Roger Phillips: It’s about much more than duck hunting

rphillips@idahostatesman.comDecember 19, 2013 

Being outdoors, whether hunting, hiking or snowmobiling, can be more than recreation. It can provide a path for healing.

Justin Klitsch, owner of Blue Collar Decoys in Parma, and Parma’s Obendorf family recently hosted a two-day hunt for service men in conjunction with the Oklahoma-based Foundation for Exceptional Warriors.

They came to Idaho from Kentucky, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Utah to participate. Three of the five were Purple Heart recipients, the medal given to servicemen and women wounded in action.

All were veterans of the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq who had seen combat, and the trip was a way to say thanks and to help them recover from the scars of war, whether physical or mental.

If the idea of taking men hunting to help recover from combat seems paradoxical, that’s overlooking the bigger picture.

Put them in a duck blind, or just let them hang out together, and the stories start flowing like ducks into a flooded field.

The wounds, the scars and the trauma are momentarily forgotten, or stories about them retold, and there’s the feeling of camaraderie and being around guys in camo with guns.

The therapeutic element is important, according to FEW. Those who survive war are still at risk of suicide and other problems.

“Our program strives to inspire change in the Exceptional Warriors’ perceptions, decrease their feelings of helplessness, and get away from the idea that they are alone,” the foundation’s website states.

FEW focuses on service members who served in special forces units, who were wounded in action, or who were recognized for valorous actions.

FEW outings also let veterans to know people care about and appreciate their service, and veterans typically have a strong connection and mutual respect for each other, even if they’ve never met.

Blend that atmosphere with the outdoors and it can be powerful medicine.

Taylor Roberts, of Glenpool, Okla., served in the infantry in Iraq. Roberts said he remembers returning from Iraq and watching the sunrise burn away the fog while he was jogging.

“I remember hitting my knees and starting crying because it felt so good to be home,” he said. “The power of nature is amazing, and that’s what we want to give these guys.”

FEW co-founder and fellow Oklahoman Ronny Sweger is Roberts’ longtime friend, and helping fellow veterans is something Roberts wanted to do.

He also happens to be a former waterfowl hunting guide, which comes in handy when trying to coax mallards out of the sky and into gun range for his fellow veterans.

Klitsch learned about FEW through his decoy company, and said supporting veterans goes “to the spirit of our company.”

He suggested the foundation bring some guys to Idaho, and asked Greg Obendorf whether he would be interested in hosting a FEW outing.

Obendorf said he “instantaneously” agreed.

“I’m very patriotic,” Obendorf said. “I think we should give back to the servicemen any time we can. They’re giving for us, so why shouldn’t we reciprocate?”

Obendorf not only opened the family farm in Parma to the hunters, he also made sure his guests were fed and entertained.

“Greg wanted to make this special for these guys,” Klitsch said.

“Greg and his buddies treated us like rock star royalty,” said Maj. Sam Sanderson, of Salt Lake City.

Sanderson said he now feels spoiled after shooting his first goose and a banded mallard during the hunt.

“The only hunting I can imagine being similar in comparison is doing a South Dakota pheasant hunt,” he said.

“Now I don’t know if I’ll be able to hunt ducks again. It’s kind of like being a Formula One or NASCAR driver and then getting into a Pinto and expecting to be satisfied driving it,” he said.

But it wasn’t just the quality of the hunting that made the event work. When the guests, hosts and volunteers intermingled so well you couldn’t tell them apart, something special was taking place.

Shaun Ferguson and several other volunteers helped wheelchair-bound Kyle Finley cross a snowy field and frozen pond and get into a blind so he could hunt ducks.

It encapsulated the whole weekend of people going above and beyond to help each other, while also showing first-rate hospitality to those who’ve served.

Roberts said the trip to Idaho was “a once-in-a-lifetime deal for some of these guys.”

“When you see the smiles on their faces, you know you’re doing something right,” he said.

Roger Phillips: 377-6215, Twitter: @rogeroutdoors

A veterans group gets first-rate hospitality during a visit to a Parma farm

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