“If it weren’t for this program I would be dead. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
HOOAH! – Healing Of Our American Heroes – is a program of the U.S. Army’s Warrior Transition Battalion at Ft. Campbell Kentucky that helps wounded servicemen re-integrate back into civilian life. Formerly known as “Healing Outside of a Hospital”, the program offers therapeutic events in the great outdoors for soldiers recovering from injuries or illnesses. It helps promote camaraderie and networking among the participants, as well as with people they meet while in the program. It also gives these men a sense of hope and helps motivate them to live another day.
The Illinois HOOAH Deer Hunt For Heroes organization, a 501c3 charitable organization based in McLean County Illinois, hosts a number of these Ft. Campbell HOOAH! program soldiers. The two founders, Tom Huffington and Matt Graden, launched the group after seeing a Sunday morning hunting show in 2011 that featured sportsmen taking wounded servicemen out hunting as part of the Army’s HOOAH! program.
“We can do that!” they said. In 2012, they and some friends hosted four soldiers on a deer hunt as part of that therapy in the outdoors.
Good people tend to attract good people into their orbit and the local group began to grow, changing lives not only for the servicemen, but also for the volunteers involved.
Guns Save Life, the regional gun rights group based in Central Illinois, became a major sponsor of the local HOOAH group, giving them funding and publicity early on. Soon, GSL’s members embraced the group and its work helping disabled veterans whole-heartedly. They donate their time and talents generously. They, and other volunteers, helped the program grow to reach more Heroes in need. The McLean County Sportsmen also contributed generously early on helping the new group get a solid footing early on as well. Yes, I’m proud to say that The People Of The Gun are extraordinarily charitable for worthy causes and helping the recovery of broken and battered American servicemen stands as a very noble cause.
In a classic example of American patriotism, scores of volunteers from all walks of life have come together to help the local, all-volunteer HOOAH Deer Hunt for Heroes grow to now include spouses and caregivers on select outings. The guys go pheasant, turkey and/or deer hunting and the ladies go out for a day on the town getting makeovers and massages. It’s all provided at zero cost to the participants, and many of the goods and services are donated as well.
I’ve personally seen participants go from suicidal to thriving. As an example, last year a young Marine participant was despondent after losing a foot to an IED. HOOAH! sent an Army/HOOAH! alumnus to show the young Marine what a guy who lost both feet can do. The Marine now does power-lifting in his spare time and is working hard to return to his former unit. Numerous others have overcome their own issues, thanks in part to their HOOAH experiences. When they credit the support of their new-found HOOAH “family” (both the local HOOAH and the Ft. Campbell HOOAH!) for saving their lives, it moves you.
And that’s why the program continues to grow, thanks in large part to gun owners and outdoorsmen far and wide. In fact, the local program has become so successful that a group of like-minded patriots in Kansas are working to create their own organization using the HOOAH Deer Hunt for Heroes template. God bless them.
Each year, the local HOOAH Deer Hunt for Heroes founders say they are going to hold the line on the number of soldiers served. They find it hard to say no when they see the lives changed for the better, suicides prevented and friendships formed, especially when new volunteers (and former alumni doing well return to pay it forward) materialize to pull off additional events successfully. This year the program is on track to serve just over 100 soldiers, not counting participating spouses and caregivers.
There’s plenty of logistics that have been overcome. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is on board, donating all the necessary licenses and permits, including moving vehicle hunting licenses for the Heroes. Landowners and hunt clubs donate the use of their land and hunt guides donate their time and experience. Volunteers help with feeding the soldiers and fellow volunteers.
SCHEELS sporting goods store in Springfield, IL outfits the Heroes from head to toe at the biggest outing – the deer and pheasant hunt. Last year, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, an avid outdoorsman, heard about the program and came out to welcome the guys to Illinois and wish them well on their hunt.
And for everything else, there’s constant fundraising to pay for the stuff that’s not donated. After all, the program is 100% done at no charge for the soldiers. The local group even pays for gas and meals for their trip from Ft. Campbell or other military bases, and lodging as necessary.
My wife coordinates the northern golf-outing and fundraising banquet while I help with publicity and promotions. We all have a role as the group has grown, sort of like how GSL has grown. Our GSL family serves as the backbone for the golf outing with lots and lots of volunteers. One of our favorites is a former Chicago Bear John Janata who loves golf. He’s larger than life in so many ways and for a $20 donation to HOOAH, he’d guarantee a shot on the green of one of the par 3s. One lucky foursome enjoyed a hole-in-one with one of his shots last year.
This year, the “Fire and Ice” Raffle is the big drawing. The Big R chain has donated an M1A Scout rifle for the “Fire” half. Peoria-based Bremer Jewelry brings the “Ice” with a Simon G 18k yellow gold and diamond pendant. For the auction, GSL Defense Training is donating a pair of guns and tuition waivers, Liberty Guns has donated a gun as well. Guns Save Life has donated a YETI cooler for another drawing and C.I. Shooting Sports donated indoor range time for all of the soldiers and golfers. Several Guns Save Life members have donated guns for auction as well, and also a slew of hand-made quilts courtesy the Neoga, IL Sew Happy Hearts Quilt Guild. Yes, The People Of The Gun are truly generous.
This year’s golf outing is coming up on Saturday, September 24th at the Pontiac Elks Club in Pontiac, Illinois. The golfers go out at noon and the fundraising banquet starts at 6pm. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by and say hi. Or better yet, bring your clubs and a foursome to play 18 holes. Or bring the family and friends and come out to the dinner in the evening.
If you would like to donate something to auction at the banquet – or to the soldiers participating – contact Wendy at [email protected]