The third hunt at the Bowman Lodge started like all the others…at the airport. Only this time, there was a flight that was delayed. We got to spend some time with Cpl. Steven Schulz, his dad, and his service dog, Sonny, while waiting on the others to arrive. Thank the lord for small set-backs. There always seems to be a few. I overcooked the Bison tenderloins, although nobody said that they minded. In fact, some of the staff said they liked it better that way. I forgot several things, but when don’t I? One team needed a lift out of the field, but I wasn’t listening to my comms. One guest had to be flown back a few hours after he arrived due to an emergency back home. We ran out of bread the first day. We ran out of mayo and mustard, too. It’s always something.
We started a few new traditions as well, however. Most importantly was our first recipient of some “Maggie’s Drawers”. When Marines are on the rifle range, a large, white disc is used to flag your target to help you score your shots. Marines working in the “butts” raise it on a long staff and hold it in front of your target after each shot. When you miss, they turn it over to the red side and wave it from left to right, indicating you missed the entire target altogether. It’s usually quite embarrassing. This hunt, we had a hunter (who will remain unnamed here) miss his deer but hit the feeder about 3 feet to the left, leaving a perfect bullet hole as proof. So in true hunting camp fashion, we cut out the tail of his shirt, which he signed and dated for us. We then hung it from the U.S. Army colors in the foyer as a “battle streamer of shame”. Alas; a new tradition! He was a great sport about it, though. somebody’s always got to go first….
Another interesting tradition involved our official Bowman Lodge Artilleryman’s Grog, a 300-year old Naval custom. It is more or less a concoction of rum punch that we use for our closing event on the ‘Warrior’s Walk’. I had purchased a case of “Jarhead Red” by Firestone Vineyards, which is a nice, pleasant red table wine, specifically for this. How appropriate but to use a wine named after Marines, and made by former Marines? While Gunny Wittrock was somewhat frantically mixing up the grog for the evening’s festivities, he found a bottle of my current favorite red wine called the ‘Prisoner’ by Orrin Swift. “Oh, here’s some red…just pour that in there”, he told his daughter, Rae Lynn (who is our unofficial bartender). Of course, the grog somehow tasted “wonderful” and “awesome” this time around, so it looks like my liquor cost just went up significantly.
One hunter that I had a few great conversations with was Sgt. Justin Pullin (ret.), a former Bradley driver in the Army. Pullin’s Bradley was hit with an IED that ruptured and ignited the fuel cell next to his driver’s hatch. He was doused with burning diesel fuel and jumped off the vehicle, fully engulfed in flames. He did what we were all taught to do since childhood– stop, drop, and roll. This proved pointless against the burning diesel, so he did what his last instinct would be…he ran. Pullin ran down the entire length of his armored column, perhaps some 500 yards, pulling off the burning clothing and equipment on his back. When he finished he was down to his skivvie shorts and third degree burns over 50% of his body. Justin wasn’t at all shy about showing us his burns. The only part of him that wasn’t scarred was his head/face, a small patch on his chest, and his private happy place (which he seemed most thankful for). He even had portion of one of his tattoos grafted from his back to his leg. Justin asked me how old I was when I joined the Marines. I told him I was 18. He replied that he was 6 when he joined the Army. It only took me a second to understand, and I didn’t ask because I didn’t have to.
Cpl. Schulz was another wise-crackin’ Marine, full of one-liners, jokes, and dirty anecdotes. He was hit with shrapnel that entered his eye and into his brain, causing blindness and paralysis on one side of his body. He has only 30% vision in his other eye, and can walk with some help from Sonny and an electrical stimulation device hooked to his leg. He has sensitivity to cold temps, yet stayed in the blind for 3 hours or more each time he was out in the field. On the warrior’s walk, he insisted upon walking it himself, and made it over a third of the way before we convinced him to take a ride in the chair. It was 22 degrees outside that night. By the fire pit we were smoking cigars one night and he asked what the difference was between Cuban cigars and other cigars. I had already grown accustomed to his staccato barrage of knock-knocks and 4 jokes per minute pace, so I replied, “I dunno…what?” He said, “No…really. What’s the difference?” The dryness and unintentional switch to seriousness made me laugh out loud. I’d really hate to see he and Cpl. Bradford tear through a room together….ladies, look out!
What really shook me to the core was seeing the photograph of when he was younger, a tough, buffed out Marine Corporal in the midst of his prime. He looked like freakin’ superman in that picture, muscled up, tan, larger than life. Today he is a slight, former shell of what he used to be. Mentally, however, he is all-Marine; tough, determined, still full of piss and vinegar. He is adapting to his situation and taking the fight in another direction, just as he was taught.
I am both sad for him yet inspired by his condition. He is the embodiment of the unrelenting resolve of the human spirit. He is making the most of his injury when many of us would just lay down and let it cover us up. He’d have an occasional beer or Mai Tai, and retire to bed early. But he’d be up every morning at 0500, ready to meet the day. I’m not sure I’d ever want to wake up in his world. Steven asked often if this was going to be an annual thing. He even mentioned at the airport when we said our goodbyes that “I’ll see you next year”. From a Bowman Lodge perspective, this highlights the fact that this is an ongoing process for these men. It’s daily…weekly…month to month, year to year. Taking them on a quality, uplifting outdoor experience is a singular event for me and my staff. For our guests, its the continuation of yet another therapy, a surgery for their soul. It doesn’t end at the airport. It doesn’t end, ever. There is no finish line….only a grueling marathon of peaks and valleys, long stretches and fast straight-aways that brings breathless pain and discomfort at nearly every turn.
It has become our job, our duty to be an aid station in the cold, rainy night. A pit stop on that long, dark road of recovery. I find the task somewhat daunting as I fear that I will somehow fail these men in their process of recovery. We cannot promise everyone a deer, which in itself is a form of failure by hunting standards. But I am learning that they are teaching us as much about ourselves as we are them about their capabilities in the outdoors.
Merry Christmas, everyone, especially to our servicemen and women still in the fight. But most importantly, Godspeed to our guests of the 2010 season, and to those brothers that never made it back…