Helping veterans to recover with hunting

There was a time before the three heart attacks, before he was effectively paralyzed in the lower half of his left leg, when Army Spc. Stephen Ramsey wouldn't do much on his Georgia farm other than pick cotton and peanuts, and hunt.

Actually, he can still remember the first time he went hunting. He watched a commercial on television, turned to his grandfather and told him he wanted to hunt deer.

The next day, the two sat silently in the deer stand and, in the glow of the sunrise, they watched turkeys and other small animals move past them until, finally, Ramsey spotted a deer. His grandfather held the Winchester .30-.30 rifle steady as Ramsey squeezed the trigger.

That was back home in Albany, Ga., the birthplace of Ray Charles, a place where Ramsey said the hunting was so good, "It was like nothing you can ever …"

His voice trailed off. You can't hoist yourself up into a deer stand with a bum leg.

Ramsey hunted everything he could in Albany — hogs, deer, small game, birds, turkey.

"I did it all," he said.

There came a time, though, when Ramsey decided he wanted something more than the life of a self-described redneck. He enlisted in the Army as a supply truck driver — what he calls the greatest decision of his life.

Before deploying, his wife gave him a gift, a bow for hunting, and though Ramsey had never been bowhunting before, he outfitted the bow with sights and a new string, and took it out on a hunt.

As Ramsey recalls, a deer appeared in the clearing. Ramsey drew back the string. He heard a pop — the string had snapped.

Ramsey took the bow for repairs, but before he could retrieve it the next day, he received a call to report to Fort Stewart, Ga., within 24 hours.

Ramsey was deployed to Iraq in late 2010. In May 2011, seven months after his arrival in the country, something happened that he still won't talk about.

Hunting events for veterans

Five years before Ramsey was flown out of Iraq on a medevac helicopter, before he languished with such debilitating post-traumatic stress that he wouldn't leave his house, two Maryland men had an idea.

Mark Hoke, a hunting guide, had already worked with Cody Kittleman to host hunting outings for people with disabilities on Kittleman's farm in West Friendship.

Working with Walter Reed Army Medical Center, they decided to hold a hunting event specifically for wounded warriors.

On that first hunt, 30 veterans showed up, and Hoke and Kittleman fed them breakfast while they hunted on crop permits in Kittleman's sunflower fields and other neighboring farms. That hunt was the beginning of what became known as Operation No Person Left Behind (NPLB), now a part of the nonprofit Operation Second Chance.

"There are vets out there who have really seen some terrible, terrible things, and it takes them a long time to open up," Kittleman said. "This is why these programs are so important, because one day they have to be part of society again, and they can't be just sitting somewhere quietly and doing nothing."

Today, NPLB holds about 20 events each year in Maryland and has also sent veterans to places such as Florida for fishing trips. Hunting is the common bond, but most of the veterans never went hunting before NPLB.

Sgt. Jon Albrecht, for example, never hunted while growing up in Cherry Hill and Brooklyn Park or while living in other areas in the state. Albrecht said he joined the Army to escape a life of drugs. And, he explains, "I also thought it would be cool to jump out of planes."

Starting in 2001, Albrecht served two tours each in Iraq and Afghanistan, and left the Army with a litany of injuries eight years later — shrapnel and gunshot wounds, migraines from explosions, a dropped left foot, loss of feeling in his hands and legs, and a "jacked-up" back. He had post-traumatic stress disorderand nightmares, and he struggles with memory problems. He still plays the drums but can't play in a band because he can't remember enough beats.

But he had little trouble picking up hunting.

"A lot of it was pretty much basic instincts because I hunted humans," Albrecht said. "So it's just a deer — not as smart, but it's still very smart."

Hoke preps volunteers on how to make veterans such as Albrecht feel safe and how to deal with flashbacks. They rig special hunting blinds for the disabled. In the beginning, they even carried the vets to stands or blinds.

But the veterans objected to such treatment. Kittleman said most leg amputees prefer to walk to the hunting spots on their own.

Last year, one man got out of Kittleman's truck and fell in the corn after two steps. Kittleman went to pick him up.

"No, I've got to learn this," Kittleman recalled the man saying. "I need this for the rest of my life."

After two more steps, he went down again. Nobody helped this time.

"Got up again and went the whole way to the blind that way and never took a hand from anybody," Kittleman said.

Over time, the NPLB regulars learned to treat veterans with disabilities as they would anyone else. Kittleman can now joke with an amputee about a missing leg. Most vets said NPLB makes them feel comfortable and relaxed. That, they said, distinguishes NPLB from similar charities.

And the bond is genuine. They go to sporting events together. The guys at NPLB paid for Albrecht to have baby pictures taken of his daughter. They rigged a generator at one veteran's house last year before a hurricane.

"It's really a retreat, a healing process," NPLB volunteer Billy Dove said. "We're trying to help them on the road to recovery to adapt, to adjust to everyday life."

Moving forward

While in outpatient care at Walter Reed last year, Ramsey was struggling with that adjustment. Though only 25, he has suffered three heart attacks. People stared at him in his wheelchair. Some laughed when he walked with his cane.

He stopped going out in public.

He couldn't go hunting. He wouldn't go near loud noises.

"I just wanted to stay in my own little shell and pretty much just sit there and wither and rot," Ramsey said.

Through Walter Reed, he connected with NPLB, but he was still unwilling to shoot. Finally, Ramsey asked Chase Savage, a friend of his who had been with NPLB for years, how he overcame the fear.

"He said, 'I pretty much just surrounded myself with people who didn't really care that I was hurt, that I was missing an arm, didn't really care that I had PTSD or anything like that,'" Ramsey recalled.

"And then I just went out there and did it."

On his first hunt, a bow hunt, Ramsey went with Dove, and within five minutes of sitting in the blind, a deer appeared. For the first time since his bowstring had snapped years before, Ramsey drew back, with Dove there to keep him steady. He released. The deer fell.

"I never really was a big emotional guy, crying-wise," Ramsey said. "I was a soldier, man. You don't do that. And after I shot that deer, it was — it was like nothing I've ever felt before because I had been so down and hard on myself because I pretty much had just given up."

After that, Ramsey was hooked again. He hung out with NPLB as much as he could before he moved back to Georgia.

Ramsey doesn't love talking about his injuries, but he opened up because he wanted to plug Dove's latest event, NPLB's Purple Heart 3D Bow Shoot at the Heart of Maryland Bowhunters in Marriottsville. NPLB will use the event as an outreach to the public and as a fundraiser. Typically, much of the funding comes from members.

At the event Aug. 19, active and retired members of the military will shoot for free, but members of the public can also come out and pay $15 to use the targets.

Ramsey, who now lives 17 hours away, can't make the event, but Dove offered to pay his travel expenses, anyway.

Ramsey has other plans. He's enrolled in college online and is planning a nonprofit in Georgia. He wants it to be like NPLB.

"Those guys saved my life," Ramsey said. "There's no if ands or ways around it. They actually saved my life."



Purple Heart 3D Bow Shoot

When: Aug. 19

Where: Heart of Maryland Bowhunters, 7930 Henryton Road, Marriottsville

Cost: $15 for public; free for current or retired military. All proceeds go toward taking disabled veterans hunting and fishing through outings sponsored by No Person Left Behind and Operation Second Chance.

Information: Call Billy Dove at 301-639-4104 or email bdove5567@yahoo.com.

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