RICHMOND — Hunting and shooting deer might not seem life-affirming to some, but it is to Army Sgt. Mike Hulsey.
He was shot through the leg and injured by a homemade bomb during a 2006 deployment to Iraq.
So bagging a white-tailed buck, and sharing camaraderie with soldiers with similar combat experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, is uplifting for Hulsey. He was among 25 soldiers who took part in Saturday's Wounded Warrior Project hunt at Blue Grass Army Depot in Madison County.
"I'm an avid outdoorsman. At one point, I told myself I can't do this anymore," Hulsey said. "I can't go out and enjoy the things I used to. This program has shown me that I'm still able to do it.
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"I'm going to have to ask for help. I'm a little slower. But I can still do it."
The Wounded Warrior Project is a non-profit national organization dedicated to helping disabled soldiers. This hunt and others are offered as opportunities to help mental and physical wellness.
Army Spec. Jimmy Walker, 28, of Fort Payne, Ala., hunted for the first time in his life Saturday, and found the experience exhilarating.
"I've got four screws and two rods in my back, and people were like, 'Well, you probably won't be able to get out and go hunting and go play football or go do this,'" Walker said. "But I went hunting, and it proves to me that I'm actually getting better instead of getting worse."
This was the second year for the Wounded Warrior hunt at the depot, which stores and distributes ammunition headed for Iraq and Afghanistan. The depot also stores 523 tons of chemical weapons scheduled for destruction.
The depot tries to keep its deer population to 700 to reduce the likelihood of collisions with vehicles on the installation's 14,600 acres, said natural resource specialist Alan Colwell.
In last year's depot hunt, 14 males and eight females were killed. (The depot also offers adult and youth hunts to the general public through lotteries.) Similar Wounded Warrior hunts are held all over the United States. Deer hunts are common, but there are Wounded Warrior hunts for wild hogs in Texas, elk in Colorado, and even an alligator hunt in Florida.
"Just to be able to get out without worrying about anybody shooting back at you" is life-affirming, said Walker, who served in Iraq.
A safety check
The soldiers arrived Thursday from Fort Knox and Fort Campbell and attended training to familiarize them with muzzle-loaded weapons, in which the projectile and propellant charge is loaded from the gun's muzzle.
Each soldier must attend a safety course, just as any hunter is required by law. Guides, who are depot employees, then take the soldiers to different spots on the property to hunt. When a soldier has shot and killed a deer, the animal is brought by truck to a check station, where it is weighed and butchered. The soldiers can keep the meat for themselves or give it to someone else. Each soldier is allowed to kill a buck and a doe, or two does.
Getting out and about in nature is important, but sharing the experience with others who know what you've been through is the program's true benefit, the soldiers said.
'I can do anything'
Five years ago, Sgt. 1st Class Ronnie Gullion, who served in Iraq, said he didn't care whether he lived or died. A fellow soldier encouraged him to go hunting.
"He did everything but pull the trigger for me that day. And my spirit did a 180," Gullion said. "I felt a lot better about myself, and I realized that day I can do anything I want."
Gullion, who is stationed at Fort Campbell, went on to develop a program there called Healing Outside of a Hospital, which takes wounded soldiers fishing, hunting or camping — anything to help them through the depression following their injuries.
"We're just like-minded individuals. All of us have injuries," Hulsey said. "This is therapy to us. We don't want to sit and talk to a therapist across a desk. All of us enjoy the outdoors, so we have that in common. But most of us were wounded in combat, so it's a little easier for us to talk to each other."
Gullion explained the healing of the hunting experience this way:
"What I don't like to see is a young soldier with an injury, sitting back feeling sorry for themselves, playing Play Station, complaining about the hand the Lord's given them. This encourages them to get out; it builds self-esteem and social skills, it's physical, mental and spiritual therapy," Gullion said.
"I heard someone say one time, 'You can be pitiful or powerful.' I may not be that powerful, but I'm damn sure not pitiful."