The fellowship of the hunt

The Baltimore Sun

ST. MICHAELS -- The sun was rising in a ribbon of crimson over the Choptank River as Barry Yancosek lugged a veteran's wheelchair backward through sand and spartina grass along the shore.

Yancosek, a therapist at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, helped Chad Kueser, who lost both legs in the Iraq war, hide behind camouflage netting with a shotgun.

Next to him, three other servicemen with prosthetic or disabled arms hunkered down into a duck blind. During a morning of biting wind and numbing cold, they felt their spirits lifted by camaraderie and breathtaking scenery.

As part of an unusual outdoor therapy program that started last year, the medical center has taken about 30 soldiers on 65 hunts on the Eastern Shore and elsewhere.

"It is really good to be able to get away like this. It lets you know you can still do what you love to do, even though you are injured," said Kueser, 33, a Navy petty officer second class from Dallas, who grew up hunting with his father.

Doctors at Walter Reed carefully screen the patients to make sure they are physically and mentally ready for the challenge of hunting with new limbs, said Yancosek, a firearms trainer and coordinator of the outdoors program.

"Guys wake up at Walter Reed after being evacuated out of Iraq, and sometimes the very first thing they say after they realize they have lost a limb is, 'My God. How am I ever going to go hunting or fishing again?'" said Yancosek.

"I have had guys in the duck blind literally in tears of joy because they thought they would never be out again," said Yancosek.

On a private farm south of St. Michaels, he waded out into the choppy, steel-gray Choptank River in hip boots, setting up 32 goose decoys and a dozen duck decoys. The soldiers tossed cedar branches over the blind where they were hiding.

Long periods of silence were broken only by the rustling of the marsh grass in a stiff wind. Clouds rolled overhead, and the sun briefly disappeared and then erupted in a dazzling ball that shot beams of gold across the frigid landscape.

A cluster of Canada geese flew overhead. "Here they come," Kueser said.

Yancosek honked a plastic goose call. He waved a black flag, to make it look as if a bird were landing.

One of the geese landed on the river. Jason Burr, a retired Army sergeant first class, peered between the branches, aimed his shotgun and squeezed. Boom! Boom! He bagged one goose, then another.

"Outstanding. ... Nothing beats it," Burr, 38, exclaimed, as he admired the heavy birds laid out on the grass. "It has taken a while to learn how to do this again because I can't use my left arm. It takes time and determination."

They shared hot coffee and joked about their injuries and anything else that struck them.

"When I grow up, I want to be like you - except with legs," Burr said to Kueser.

"It's brothership, camaraderie," Burr said of the friendly joshing.

"That is a big word for you, Jason - camaraderie," interrupted Jose Ramos, 26, a retired hospital corpsman from El Paso. His dreams of becoming a firefighter ended in Iraq in July 2004, when a rocket took off his left arm.

Now Ramos is studying Arabic and Islamic culture for a degree in international relations at George Mason University. "I hope to go back to Iraq," said Ramos. "My only regret is getting hit."

"On these hunting trips, you meet people who probably should not have been in the military, like Jose," Burr said jokingly.

When they weren't laughing or shivering, some reflected on their lives and service in Iraq.

Kueser, the son of a Texas truck driver, sat in his wheelchair and spat sunflower seeds as he gazed out at the sun-glazed river, his shotgun by his side.

He is married, with a 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. He was stationed in San Antonio in May 2005 when he received an e-mail asking if he wanted to go to Iraq. After talking to his wife, he accepted, thinking it might get him promoted.

Two months later, the Navy stationed him in one of Saddam Hussein's family palaces next to the Tigris River in Tikrit, Iraq. Kueser was working computers at night in a once-glamorous building called "The Water Palace."

"Palace living in Iraq is not what you might think," he said with a smile. "There were 40 guys in bunks in the palace bedroom, with one light bulb and all the windows blacked out and covered with sandbags."

Every day, insurgents fired as many as 12 mortar rounds at a mosque spire next to their dining hall. "Sometimes, you'd be walking across the base, and all of a sudden you would hear a thump. ... At first, it is unnerving. But you figure, 'It didn't hit me,' so you keep on going."

Then, at 9 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2005, he was smoking outside the palace when a shell landed next to him and blew off both of his legs.

"I had seven days of wacky dreams but no real memory of what happened," he said.

Now he is living at Fort Meade, learning how to walk on prosthetic legs. He plans to retire soon, and he has a civilian job lined up in February with the Department of Defense in San Antonio.

He said he always planned to retire and make this career shift to contract computer work - losing his legs just means he is doing it 15 years early. "I am ahead of where I planned to be because of my injury," he said.

Dennis Cline, a 28-year-old Army sergeant from Memphis, Tenn., who lost his arm in Afghanistan, said the hunting trips have helped him avoid depression.

"Coming out here gets my mind off the difficulties of life. You never forget the memories you make coming out here," he said, looking at the other hunters. "These guys are like my family."

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