In Wyoming, hunting brings disabled veterans together
CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Shooting an unsuspecting pronghorn with a high-powered rifle is fairly straightforward for the experienced hunter.
For the blind hunter, though, it requires an assist from a gracious friend.
As soon as Gordon Benton got himself and Jerral Brasher, both in their late 60s, within range of a herd last Saturday morning, he set up their jet black Savage Arms rifle on a tripod and got to work.
Brasher, who lost his right eye during the Vietnam War to a grenade and the vision in his left eye over time, held it steady as Benton and their guide sized up their targets.
Roughly 1,000 feet away, a handful of bucks were making advances on some does. Benton and guide Torey Racines zeroed in on one with a respectable rack and waited for it to separate from the herd.
“Switch off safety,” Brasher heard in his ear as his friend aimed at the buck.
“We’re getting closer,” Benton muttered, watching the animal move through the scope.
“OK, pull the trigger,” Benton said, and down it went.
Benton gave an exultant cheer and found Brasher’s hand for a high-five. Brasher’s focused expression became a wide grin. Then Benton handed Brasher the rifle, folded up the tripod and the pair of Vietnam War Army veterans went off hand-in-hand across the sunlit plain to see their kill.
It was exactly the kind of moment Hunting with Heroes aimed to provide to more than a dozen other veterans last Saturday.
The Casper-based nonprofit gives more than 100 disabled veterans from across Wyoming and the country the chance to hunt each year in the Cowboy State. Last weekend wasn’t all hunting – the veterans were treated to dinner each night and went fly fishing with the Cheyenne chapter of Project Healing Water. But the chance to shoot Wyoming game was a clear highlight.
The organization relies heavily on donated hunting licenses, volunteer guides and the generosity of landowners like locals Dave Berry and Doug Samuelson, who open their properties to the veterans.
“The military is such a huge, huge part of Cheyenne,” Samuelson said. “They give us so much and it’s a little thing we can give back to them.”
At the center of it all is the idea that getting veterans together to shoot big game is one of the best ways to build friendships and ease lingering pains.
For Navy veteran Stephen Brinkley, organizing the nonprofit’s Cheyenne chapter has been a way for him to recreate the circle of friends he left behind when he moved from Spokane, Washington.
“People in the military thrive on camaraderie,” he said. “And so when I got to be part of this organization, I got those ties back.”
Greg Barber, an Army veteran from Glencoe, Ala., seconded those remarks and added that being around other people who fought helped him keep post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms at bay.
“It’s nice to meet guys that know that were over there (in Vietnam),” he said. “They understand.”
“And hunting gets your mind off of it a little bit,” he added.
For Benton and Brasher, that sounded about right.
The two men, who met at a group therapy session a few years ago, according to Brasher, spent the next hour after the kill celebrating their accomplishment.
First, they took individual pictures with the animal, then as a duo and then with their guide. They snapped several more with Samuelson, on whose land they were hunting, when he showed up to check on how they were doing.
And then, while Benton and Racines gutted the animal and secured its head for a trophy mount, Brasher took the opportunity for a little reflection.
He would never see the trophy mounted on a wall nor know how excited his friend had looked when his bullet took down the pronghorn.
And there’s not much to be done about what happened when he was a 21-year-old fighting in the jungle.
But it was OK, he said. He still had vision in his left eye up until seven years ago and saw a lot of wonderful things while he could.
And nothing could diminish a glorious morning with a fellow Army man.
“It’s been kind of a long road,” he said. “But things like this keep me going.”