Forced to retire from the Lexington Fire Department after devastating injuries, Mark Sturgill found comfort among others like him.
In 2004, Sturgill fell 30 feet in a training exercise, breaking a hip, vertebrae and pelvis and suffering a head injury. Sturgill still feels the effects.
Through a couple of trips with fellow wounded first responders, as well as wounded war veterans, Sturgill has found comfort. He said the events put on by Kentucky Wounded Heroes create instant bonds and friendships.
Kentucky Wounded Heroes is a non-profit program for current or former firefighters, emergency personnel and members of the military or law enforcement who have been injured during combat or while on duty, according to its website. The group raises money to pay for free trips or outings.
Since 2007, trips for veterans have included fishing in Alaska and at Lake Erie as well as get-togethers at University of Kentucky and University of Louisville athletic events. In 2011, the group and its events were opened to wounded first responders like Sturgill.
The first time Sturgill went on a Kentucky Wounded Heroes trip, he didn’t say much and just listened to the “heroes” tell their stories. Initially, he didn’t feel worthy of going on the trips with war veterans.
“There is a lot of commonality with the injuries,” Sturgill said. “Even though I didn’t have war experiences and they didn’t have fire experiences, we had something in common.
“Being on that trip made me realize that I did get hurt, I got hurt helping others just like they did,” he said.
Each year, Kentucky Wounded Heroes puts on six major events, with more, smaller outings throughout the year. Director Chuck Reed said the group gives priority to those who haven’t participated previously.
Reed said Kentucky Wounded Heroes is the only organization of its kind in the country that is volunteer-based.
“There are very few counties in Kentucky that don’t contain wounded heroes,” Reed said. “We started having events for these guys because we decided we wanted to do something extra and wanted to give back just a little bit.”
Reed served in the Marine Corps and National Guard and spent 28 years with the Kentucky State Police. He is joined on the organization’s board of directors by Mike Dentinger, a member of the Louisville police department; Kentucky State Police Lt. Michael Webb; and Brett Hightower, a retiree from the Bowling Green Police Department and Kentucky National Guard.
Wounded veterans and first responders needed help coping with post-traumatic stress, Reed said.
“We see the damage and it is just in us to try and give back just a little bit because the need is there.”
Hightower was injured in Afghanistan in 2008 and taking part in one of the group’s halibut and salmon fishing trips in Alaska helped his recovery.
“Everybody deals with their injuries differently, whether it’s physical or psychological,” Hightower said. “All of this, getting them out of their homes ... I believe that really helps. When you get them out in nature and off of TVs and cell phones, that helps bring them together.”
Hightower has been volunteering for the organization about seven years, he said.
More than 100 heroes attended the organization’s event last June, Reed said. Because word has traveled, more than half of those heroes were from neighboring states.
Kentucky Wounded Heroes has upcoming pheasant-hunting trips lined up for the end of January and beginning of March, Reed said. The trips are about so much more than hunting, he said.
“It doesn’t matter what they catch, harvest, shoot … the big thing is the fellowship with one another,” Reed said. “The time spent with one another at the lake banks, in these boats and canoes, just the fellowship with the folks who are on the same wavelength, is special to see.”
“Anytime you deal with people who served and sacrifice, you try to give them a little something back and let them know they aren’t forgotten and their service matters,” Hightower added. “You see these guys come out of their shell on the trips. It just makes you feel good to know that lives are being changed and people are being renewed from their shared experiences.”
For more information about Kentucky Wounded Heroes, including how to join or volunteer, visit Kentuckywoundedheroes.net or contact Chuck Reed at (502) 235-4262.