In my world, I don’t often get a chance to have an experience where lives are touched, human lives to be more specific. As I sit here reflecting on this past year’s hunting seasons I am often drawn to reminiscing about the “best” hunts. For a time in my life it was always focused on the animals I pursued and every once in a while it actually included an animal I killed.
My hunts are measured by the people I take. Whether it be my son, my Dad, my closest friend or complete strangers, “my” best hunts are often “their” best hunts. As many hunters know, there is a standard progression that takes place throughout their hunting career that takes the focus off the animals we hunt and, deservedly so, places it on the entire hunting experience. That point in my career occurred earlier than for most and it was completely due to my job. It was an experience I gained on a Young Sportsman’s deer hunt that was put on by our agency but that story will be shared one day in another blog. This story, the one I write right now, need not take the focus off the true “heroes” of this past season. It is my duty to make sure their story is shared. Luckily for me, it is where my thoughts of this past hunting season not only begin, but it culminates, in a truly wonderful memory.
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Some people believe heroes come in larger than life size or with Herculean strength. Some even believe they come with superpowers or originated from far off alien galaxies. A few even think heroes are cast with body parts made from titanium. I am here to tell you that the last statement is sometimes true.
When speaking of these mighty figures you will not find their names preceded by the likes of Mega, Ultra or Super, rather, they go by simple names like Bobby, Brandon, Wilson, R.J., Matthew, and many more. The one thing they ALL have in common is that their signatures are always preceded by their rank.
They are the men and women of our military forces… our real modern-day heroes.
This past season I had the privilege and honor of assisting some of our greatest heroes on a simple deer hunt. What made this excursion of a small group of men and women from Fort Campbell Army Base much different than previous outings is that this time, these brave soldiers were not in pursuit of your freedoms but rather a little well-deserved downtime. They were after all, participating in a Wounded Warriors Hunt at Fall Creek Falls State Park, a time meant to kick back and relax.
So as not to take away from the individual story of any one of these fine individuals for I am certain they each have stories that can bring you to your knees, I am going to focus on me and how blatantly insignificant and unimportant my life felt compared to theirs.
* * * * *I arrived at Fall Creek Falls at the request of Bill Swan, Safari Club International (SCI) member, to serve as a hunting guide for one of the Wounded Warriors. (Without a doubt, the Chattanooga chapter of SCI, does more for our Wounded Warriors for this hunt than any other group I know, they truly are to be commended!) Upon speaking with Bill about his initial request, I made it abundantly clear that I was unfamiliar with Fall Creek Falls so I wasn’t sure how good of a guide I could possibly be. He assured me I had nothing to worry about. The soldiers did not require or need someone to “put them on an animal”, they simply needed a partner. The task requested of me seemed simple enough. How wrong I was.
As I sat in the Group Camp, the soldiers began to arrive. Seeing the anticipation in their eyes of tomorrow’s deer hunt was enough to tell me that their eyes had seen more than anyone could possibly imagine. The fact that “a day in the woods” was a long awaited and cherished moment, reminded me of how spoiled I truly am. It was because of their service that I am able to selfishly take for granted the things that I do every single day.Fortunately, it didn’t take long for me to make friends.
As the pre-hunt social continued the last of the soldiers filtered in. Though most of the soldiers were in decent physical shape from appearance, a few were not. Some were missing limbs (yes, new ones made from titanium) while others had difficulty walking or even sitting still. One can only imagine the other wounds they shared, the wounds in which we cannot see.
I promise that is the last of my morose thoughts because this was a time to rejoice and have fun!
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Needless to say, I spent the next few days with some of the greatest guys I have ever met. Some deer “met their maker” that week. As luck would have it, my soldier (the one who was originally assigned to me) filled his tag, but only after he was paired with another guide on the last evening. I swear it speaks NOTHING of my guide services! At least I’m trying to convince myself of that.
I do know, without a a shadow of a doubt, that if my guide services for these fine gentleman are ever sought again, I will be there in a blink of an eye.
To Bobby, Brandon, Wilson, R.J., Matthew, and the rest of the soldiers …
… I thank you, for you truly are my hero.
PS - I would be remiss not to mention all of the Agency folks who assist with Wounded Warrior Hunts across the state. I am certain all the officers, biologists, I&E personnel and all those who volunteer their time do so for the same reasons as I. You guys rock.
Daryl Ratajczak is the Chief of Wildlife and Forestry for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. He is an avid outdoorsman enjoying all forms of outdoor recreation from hiking and kayaking to hunting and fishing. He is dedicated to protecting and managing all of Tennessee's wildlife resources and bringing the outdoors to all citizens of Tennessee.