Another hunt under our belt. Another group of incredible heroes whom I can now call friends. Another 10-point Whitetail buck down. More stories to share and remember, more memories made for me and my crew.
But these hunts are so specifically different from one another, it would be extremely misleading to label them as “starting to run together” and looking the same. They are quite different. And quite the same. I learn something every time I meet these men.
We hosted another group of wounded Marines from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. We had a slightly smaller group this time around. Some were gunshot wound victims. Some got blown up, which seems to be the predominant injury suffered by our servicemen in the 21st century. One Marine, Andrew Cagle, had fused vertebrae from L1 to S1. In non-medical terms that means that his entire lower back has been fused together so he has limited mobility there and suffers from pain, most of the time. Cagle was blown up in an Amtrac and his weapon slammed into his nose, breaking it severely. His dad is an Oncologist in the Houston area, and he seemed highly intelligent. Yes….even for a Marine! I enjoyed having conversations with him into the night. One of our back-up guides, fellow jarhead Sam Stewart had the pleasure of guiding Cagle on this hunt.
When they returned from the field on saturday, Sam told me that they walked most of the entire day, describing geographically the course they took around the ranch. He secretly confided that Cagle wore his ass out (sorry, Sam…ain’t a secret no moe!). Moreover, he stated that Andrew told him that he had already defied what the doctors had told him; he walked over rough terrain all day long, something they had said he would never be able to do. The next day, he was definitely sore, but he seemed to have a little extra pep in his step afterwards. His accomplishment appeared to be a huge boost of confidence for him, despite not getting a good shot at a deer. I consider this a huge success in it’s own right.
It always seems that we have a major character on these hunts. Not to outshine or overshadow the other hunters…quite the contrary. Every unit seems to have one or more of these individuals. For this weekend, it was PFC Aaron Shaffer. I am almost speechless on how best to describe him. He hails from West Virginia, and has somewhat a checkered though colorful past, both in and out of the Corps. The first night, he had picked up my Taylor guitar and started picking ‘Wildwood Flower’ while sitting at the fire pit. I knew I was in for a treat. Cold Warrior Daryl Colyer brought his Taylor as well once again, and the three of us sang and played well into the night. It was exciting and so much fun for me. We only paused once during the 5.6 magnitude earthquake…we all cheered, high-fived each other while the windows flopped like sheets in the wind.
Early sunday morning, Shaffer and guide Gunny Wittrock had been in the blind all of 8 minutes when a nice 10-point walked into view, affording him an 80 yard shot from his .243. I’m not even sure he was awake yet. Gunny had had to “motivate” him out of the rack earlier with threats of violence and severe guilt trips, which worked. Good thing, too.
Shaffer has that sort of dead-pan, down home country sense of humor, somewhere between Jeff Foxworthy and Jerry Clowers, with perhaps a wee bit of Rodney Carrington thrown in. I don’t know for certain if he realizes how damn funny he actually is, either. Late on saturday evening, I came outside in the middle of one of his stories. Like his pal Sgt. Nathan Harris from last month, the details were so raunchy, so vile and disturbing that it would be highly inappropriate to convey them here, in writing. All of his stories, though, had the common theme of motorcycles, state police, and being tased. Four times. One involved a firearm. All were so incredibly funny, funnier still with his straight-faced delivery. I laughed so hard my neck hurt.
Later on, Shaffer told me of his incident and his injuries. He spoke of the pain and suffering he feels on a daily basis. But this alone stuck with me: “I try not to complain. I know so many guys….so many….that are way more messed up than me.”
It has become obvious that the key to success at the Bowman Lodge is the common bonds of military service me and my guides share with our guests. The camaraderie is contagious, and I cannot underscore it enough. I know by now it must sound cliche’, but it is absolutely 100% key to what makes things tick at the lodge. These men simply cannot or will not open up to strangers without such a bond already built in place. I never imagined that it would be so crucial to making a successful hunt, regardless of whether anybody actually shoots a deer. It has caused me more than a moment or two of pontification.
Military service…more specifically, combat, is exciting. It is the ultimate rush of adrenaline and as primal as life itself. It is also incredibly terrifying, and the most horrific experience that can be had by human beings. Far better essays have been written on this subject, and I don’t mean to sugarcoat the matter at all. It changes people. If it doesn’t add immediate perspective, it will at some point in a veteran’s life. The one thing that I have found so intimately common among the guests of the Bowman Lodge is that nothing is more valuable, more lasting, and more sublime than the bonds of friendship made under fire. I often find myself regretting getting out after my contract was up. It’s funny that I do not remember all the bullshit and stupid games the Marine Corps is well-known for placing upon it’s members from time to time. I also don’t remember the hectic set of life changes befuddling me during that time in my life. I just know that I sure do miss it. Upon further reflection, I realize, as most vets do, that it wasn’t the service, the locales or even the surrealistic memory of being in a combat zone. It was the men. The friends. The bonds made under duress. This is what all veterans of war seem to crave and miss the most from their service. Nothing else compares to it.
I had lunch today with an old vet buddy, and we discussed how some guys we served with just moved on without ever looking back. When he held a reunion last summer, several guys showed up that we hadn’t seen in 20 years. Some of them were overcome with such emotion and they seemed very surprised at this. It was if they had walked back in time to the Kuwaiti desert in 1991, and nothing had changed. They had missed out on that connectedness, those bonds, for the last two decades. I trust now that the sense of brotherhood….that which was never really lost, will burn bright once again.
Although I know I probably don’t rate it, I’ve often wondered about being buried in a national cemetery when that time comes. That way, my withered corpse can lie with the old ones, leaching out the camaraderie of wars and battles past, straight from their soil, the dead communing with the dead. Meanwhile, our souls will toast to the heroes of our memories, and we’ll break bread together while U.S. Marine grunts guard the streets of heaven. We will toast them, too, and offer them a dram of the angel’s share. Wishful thinking, perhaps.
I know this will be the case with our guests at the Bowman Lodge. They speak of the men they led, or those who saved them, dragging them out of the fire, plugging the bullet holes with their fingers. Friends for life. Brothers for eternity. Damn right.
Happy belated 236th birthday to all Marines, past, present, and future. And today is Veteran’s Day. But every day is veteran’s day at the Bowman Lodge. Here’s to all that came before us, and to those who will later come to serve our wondrous union….