My wife handed me the pink slip of paper from the courthouse. “Our final hearing is Monday, March third. One PM. Are you going to show up this time?” PTSDivorce! That’s what I call it these days. ”I’ll be there this time.” I need closure. My wife of 23 years and my kids walk out the door as she picks them up to go over to “Mom’s house.” It used to be our house. The house where our kids learned to walk, where they learned how to ride their bikes for the first time, where my wife stood on the front porch, 3 months pregnant, crying at 3AM as I threw my duffle bag up on my shoulder and left for the first deployment; the place where I came home to yellow ribbons and a “Welcome Home Daddy!” sign, where I left again for the second deployment, and then the third… And so now here I stand in my “Man Room” which is actually the place I’m renting, close by for now.
“F***********************@%K!!!” I scream to no one as they pull out of the driveway and leave again. Why couldn’t I change? Why couldn’t I control my temper? Why weren’t the pills from the VA enough to make me better? Why wasn’t the counseling good enough? Why won’t God help me fix this? It’s my own damn fault. I cranked up “It’s Time Again” and “Fallen Soldier” by SSG Nathan Fair on my iPhone for the umpteenth time as I lifted open the laptop to check my email again. I couldn’t get a hold of my counselor at the VA, but I kept trying. My battle buddy, a Brittany Spaniel, leaned in close, and lay by my feet, as if to say, “It’s OK, Daddy. I’m here for you…” Up popped an email from the Wounded Warrior Project guy. Do you remember that pheasant hunt retreat that you signed up for a while back? Three spots just opened up at the last minute. Do you still want to go? My divorce is gonna be final on Monday, and now I’m going to be all alone this weekend before the big day. I really don’t want to be alone right now. Sure. OK, call this guy Mark with the local Pheasants Forever chapter and he’ll hook you up with all the details. Will do. Thanks. “Hey, Mark, Can I bring my hunting dog too?” Sure.
I loaded my hunting gear in the back of my truck, “C’mon Mr. Poke,” and my battle buddy climbed in the front seat. We headed off on a road trip to Mineral Point, Wisconsin. Three hours later, I drove over the crest of the hill approaching Tanglewood Ranch. I took in the view: the Golden Brown cabin nestled in the hillside, the green metal roof gleaming in the morning sun. I shook hands with an old timer decked out in Carharts and hunters’ orange. He would be one of our hunting guides. I could park my truck over there by his, and Tommy would help me get settled into the cabin. Tommy was an eight-year-old kid. “Let me help you with your suitcase!” He grinned and held out his hand for me to shake. I dropped my gear off in the cabin with my new roommates, Chris and Jason. Both of them were from the Wounded Warrior Platoon at Fort Knox. They drove in the night before. Chris had a scar on the side of his head, blast marks on the side of his face, and walked with a bit of a limp. Jason was taller than me, bald like a cue ball, confident and competent as any NCO would be. Battle Buddies. I immediately felt the old kinship kick in. John was more my age, with a long black beard like Duck Dynasty. He wouldn’t touch a shotgun, but he’d go on the hunt with us. Mason, the quiet young Marine, Adam, and myself sported red beards and camouflage, looking like a bunch of Special Forces wannabes. I think John was the real deal. There were fourteen of us altogether. Some were on active duty, most were in the National Guard, a few others in the Marines. All had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, some with visible wounds, and some without. We were a little shy at first, but after a while it was like a family reunion.
Mark gave us our in-briefing and safety briefing. We were treated with kindness, respect, acceptance, hospitality, and camaraderie. It was more than a thank you; it was an expression of love from complete strangers, thankful citizens, regular everyday people who care. The boy was Mark’s son, and his wife helped with the cabin. Another guy catered our meals. We ate steak on the first night! Some of the local VFW and American Legion guys stopped by to shake hands with us and show their support also.
After everybody settled in, the first thing we did was shoot clays. I shot pretty well and didn’t embarrass myself. They provided free ammo, free clays, and even let you borrow a shotgun if you didn’t have one of your own. If you were a first timer, they were happy to provide you with instruction. It was relaxed, no pressure or anything, just fun.
After everybody was warmed up from shooting clays, we geared up for the first hunt. We all piled into the metal building for Mark to give us our safety briefing and lay out the mission brief for us. We would get on line and push through the valley, with “blockers” posted at the end and along the left and right flanks. We had “flankers” on the left and right limit push ahead about a hundred yards in front of the main line of “drivers.” We had to follow the “Blue Sky” rule, don’t shoot unless the birds flush up high enough for you to see “”Blue Sky” in the background. Also, absolutely no shootin’ birds on the ground that haven’t flushed up yet. Keep your safety on in case you slip and fall, and keep your muzzle awareness in check. Simple. We loaded up with two boxes each of free ammo, and if anybody needed hunting vests, orange hats, etc. we all shared since some guys brought extra gear for the beginners to use. No sweat. They also gave us some sweet shooting glasses, which we could keep, and hearing protection if you needed it. We had about five trained dogs, with guides to help out. Most of those guys were from the local Pheasants Forever Chapter, from the ranch itself, or other volunteers- all of them were just awesome. Mr. Poke was on his game: pointing, flushing, and hunting close. There was an English Setter that joined in too. The other dogs included some Labs, which are great at retrieving too. We piled into some ATV’s and took our positions both on the way in, and on the way out. If anybody had mobility issues, they were accommodated just fine. It was tough going in some spots because of the snow, but nothing we’re weren’t used to.
After the hunt, we headed back to the rustic dream of a cabin and kicked off our boots and relaxed. We met the owner who donated his place, the caterer, the volunteers, and put our autographs on a big sign thanking all the donors. We finished our steak dinner and then just enjoyed a group gab session. It started with stories of the hunt’s best moments, and then we broke off into talking about our war experiences, the good times, funny stories, and all the other male bonding stuff we normally do- there were no female warriors who came on this trip, but they would be welcome if they’d been there- and we made new friends with each other. The only downside was- no beer! But OK, that was the rule I guess.
We liked it so much that we woke up the next morning and did it again. We had a hot breakfast, took care of our safety briefing and mission brief, loaded up with ammo and gear, and then moved out on the ATVs again. This time we switched sides or switched “flankers,” “drivers,” and “blockers” so everybody had a fair shot. The guides were so awesome, that they even planted some more birds for a couple guys who wanted to have another go at it. In the end, everybody was happy, safe, and thankful for the experience. We took some group pictures and then set off on our separate ways, each with some fresh pheasant breast to take home and cook up for the family. I made schnitzel with mine. The kids love it. You heat up some oil in a pan, dip the breast in some flour and Bay’s seasoning, dip it again in some egg wash, then dip it again into some Panko bread crumbs, and fry it up on both sides until golden brown and crispy. Serve with rice or taters, maybe some pea pods or green bean casserole, and a nice cold beer. Repeat, over.
Naturally, Mr. Poke was steadfast and loyal. He sits there patiently waiting for me to accidentally drop some pheasant on the floor. And naturally, since he is my battle buddy, I “accidentally” drop some on the floor, just for him.
If you are interested in your own “battle buddy” or service dog, check out www.givingindependence.org down in Peoria, IL, or check out Assistance Dogs International at http://www.assistancedogsinternational.org/ for a list of trainers across North America. Mr. Poke is a hunting dog, but being a service dog just comes naturally to him. You know, when I got home, I felt a lot better. Sorry, gotta go, I think my new girlfriend is calling me. Stay tuned, I’m gonna check out this “Boots and Hooves” horse therapy for PTSD out in Maple Park, IL. I have a couple of veteran book reviews coming up too. I’ll let you know at the next blog briefing. PEACE OUT.
Line of Advance is the digital literary journal for the creative writing of military veterans. Subscribe today to read the best in veteran writing.