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For many wounded veterans, returning to civilian life is rife with challenges. A program that teams up willing ranchers with wounded veterans helps that transition.
Matt Keil shows the sip-and-puff mechanism he uses to fire a rifle or shotgun. The gun is mounted on a moving platform that Keil can manipulate with a joy stick. When he gets everything lined up, he takes the trigger mechanism in his mouth and fires.
Matt Keil had a problem. “How,” he asked the assembled minds around the supper table, “can I convince my wife I need a shotgun?”
The assemblage, true to the tradition of hunting camps everywhere, did not lack for advice. Keil grinned as the din of the debate grew louder. There, at the supper table on a Texas Panhandle ranch after the first afternoon of his first turkey hunt, Staff Sgt. Matt Keil (U.S. Army, Ret.) of Parker, CO, knew he was fully and completely home.
Earlier that afternoon, Keil harvested his first gobbler, using a shotgun borrowed from his father-in-law. Using a borrowed shotgun is OK, but if you’re going to be a turkey hunter, you need a turkey hunting gun. And Keil had become, and forever more shall be, a turkey hunter.
At that moment, there was not a man in the room who wouldn’t have gladly gotten up, fetched his shotgun from its resting place, and handed it to Keil, saying simply, “Here. It’s yours.”
But they didn’t. Keil, Army strong and Army proud, will buy his own shotgun, thank you, even though he will never again stand on his own legs or hold the gun in his own hands to shoot it.
The long road home
Keil’s long road home began Feb. 25, 2007, during his second tour of duty in Iraq. While on dismounted patrol, he took a sniper’s bullet in the neck, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. He has limited use of his left arm, allowing him to run the joy stick on his motorized wheelchair, as well as on the apparatus that mounts on his wheelchair that holds and fires a rifle or shotgun.
But with it, Keil has swelled by one the number of new hunters who have learned the thrill of a fair-chase hunt and experienced the special and unique camaraderie of a hunting camp.
For Keil and many other wounded warriors, that’s an important experience in their recovery from injuries, and their adjustment to dealing with their disabilities, says Lt. Col. Lew Deal (USMC, Ret.), national program coordinator for the Outdoor Recreation Heritage Fund (www.pvaheritagefund.org). Sponsored by the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), the program enables injured veterans to go on hunting and fishing trips at little or no cost to the veteran.
The reason the hunting experience is important, says Dan Shepherd of Pueblo West, CO, is it brings a degree of normalcy to an injured veteran’s life. Shepherd, who served with Keil in Korea as well as Iraq, accompanied Keil on his turkey hunt in the Texas Panhandle. It was the first time either had hunted turkeys.
While Keil’s injuries are obvious, Shepherd has a “hidden wound” – TBI or traumatic brain injury. During two tours each in Afghanistan and Iraq, Shepherd survived 12 IED attacks, suffering six severe concussions. One more concussion, the doctors told him, would likely be fatal.
“In Matt’s case,” Shepherd says of hunting, “he gets to come out, he gets to feel like a man again. He gets that little bit of time where nobody’s looking at him funny and wondering what his problem is.”
For Shepherd, a taxidermist and prison guard, it is stress relief. His return to civilian life is fraught with the same challenges as everyone’s – a growing family, a mortgage, bills to pay. Dealing with a traumatic brain injury, however, it’s more.
“I’ve always got something going on in my head, so it’s nice to come out,” he says. “It’s nice to hear the birds chirping and the turkeys squeaking around. It’s amazing what watching those little critters can do for somebody.”
Both Shepherd and Keil harvested turkeys – Shepherd limited out with four and Keil brought three home to the freezer. But, showing the ethic of true sportsmen, game in the bag was only a part of what made the trip memorable.