More Than A Hunt
2nd Annual Wounded Warriors Pheasant Hunt
“The primary goal was that we have a safe hunt and that the warriors have a pleasurable time”, was Jeffery’s Simonides mission statement as he walked closely behind and monitored the soldier, six marines, five dog handlers each with one to two dogs and several press photographers as they made their first pass through the green alfalfa field. As well as being an organizer of this annual hunt, Jeff also works for the Department of Fish and Game as a Hunter-Education instructor in the Southern California District and was in charge of everyone’s safety throughout the day while the hunt progressed.
This hunt would be special in several ways for the young hunters and supporters involved in it as November 15th was the opening day of pheasant hunting season in California and the opening of hunting season is always special to any hunter. More importantly, this Second Annual Wounded Warriors Pheasant Hunt was created for marines and soldiers to get time out of the Balboa Naval Medical Center in San Diego where some of them had spent up to two years rehabilitating their injuries from the conflicts overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their wounds included missing limbs, shattered bodies and most of these wounded warriors would traverse the fields fitted with prosthesis. One of the precipitants Trey Felts, a forth generation marine was a anti-tank assault sergeant in Iraq when he was wounded was asked what the weekend hunt meant to him after two and a half years going in and out of Balboa Navel Medical Center. Felts replied, “It's a great chance to experience something different than a hospital every once in a while. It's nice to know there is still real world out there.” Another participate, Ufrano Rios Jimenez, a marine infantryman wounded while serving in Afghanistan said that, “This was the first event where I was able to go out with my friends and just do some good old American hunting since my accident.” The day of the hunt was warm, sunny and with a clear blue sky. The hunting dogs were nervous and the Warriors were excited as they were fitted with their new hunting vests and given instruction on safety protocol while handling their 12 gauge shotguns. The group arrived on the alfalfa fields and took up one long line with one dog and one experienced hunter-dog handler such as Joe Machado of the Imperial Valley leading them into the field. The first half hour of the hunt produced not a bird to be seen, but just a little bit later marine sergeant Nick Berbernis had a pheasant fly right to left about 40 feet in front of him and he got off a pretty good shot but missed. My photo of him shooting at the low flying bird was even better than his shot and I teasingly told him that the picture would make for a perfect cover shot for the magazine article I was developing. From then on, I teased and prodded the hunter-warriors that they had to up the ante on their shots to snag that cover shot from Nick. Although, they would be hindered to an extent by their injuries all of the marines would show humor and a sense of self-pride and a great ability to laugh off their woes while hunting by giving each other a raze when they would fail to shoot a bird that flew right near them. As the day progressed, the warriors got their aim and timing down and soon the birds started to fall with Nick and Manny ‘Gunny’ Luna bagging the most birds. Although those two guys were the most experienced hunters and may have shot most of the game birds that day, it was Army Sergeant First Class Jacque Keeslar who showed the marine ‘grunts’ a real bit of toughness as he walked along with the guys above on a dirt road with two prosthesis. Kesslar had a real sense of humor that kept the marines on their toes throughout the day with the inner service humor of an Army soldier versus the Marines. The guys all took his humor in-stride, as they knew him very well back at the hospital. You see SFC Keeslar, who is still on active duty, works as the platoon barracks sergeant back at the Balboa Hospital. He is in charge of many of the wounded soldiers, sailors, marines and airman coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan as they cycle through their rehabilitation and live on the base. Keeslar lost both his legs while deployed with the 177th Striker Brigade in the Anbar Province, Iraq and has been leading by example after a long recovery himself for the newly wounded GI’s to look up to. During the hunt, the guys shot twenty of the thirty stocked pheasants and a few wild birds to boot. With a few disagreements over whom shot which birds, I believe that all the marines shot at least one bird and I know they all had a good time getting out to get some fresh air, mixed with exercise. I think the real joy for these guys came from not so much the act of ‘getting a bird’ but from the physical exercise and the realization that this hunt represented a chance to do the things that they use to do before becoming wounded. The marines also took notice of all the people involved over the weekend that had shown them care and patience. Chris Lawrence one of the marines that was on the hunt had a tattoo on his arm of himself being carried off the battlefield and shares this same tattoo with the marines that actually carried him off the battle field when he was blown up on a bridge in Iraq was asked what he wanted to do in the future. He replied, “I want to help people, as so many people have helped me over these past two years and I really feel that that is my life’s goal.”
This hunt and the weekend festivities involved not just the hunters themselves but also many thoughtful individuals representing several organizations. Congressman Duncan D. Hunter was the person that originally conceived the idea for the hunt. Congressman Hunter had contacted his friend Jeff Simonides two years ago with this idea. Jeff in turn had contacted DFG Captain Roy Griffin back in Sacramento who gave Jeff the go ahead for the project. Jeff brought in David Cason and Don Floyd of the Wounded Warrior Project from the Imperial Valley to help find locations and events for the marines. Sandy Lehmkuhler of the Warrior Foundation would serve as liaison between the hospital staff and the Department of Fish and Game and Wounded Warrior Project to bring the wounded marines out of the hospital. Also, assisting for the event were Hunter Safety Coordinator Lieutenant Dan Moraga and Lieutenant Lance Weihe of the Southern Department of Fish and Game district who each played an integral part in the weekend’s hunt. Don Floyd and Jeff Simonides would serve as the GI’s chaperones for the weekend and would escort the warriors to and from events in the surrounding community and their hotel in El Centro. The weekend festivities included a Friday night steak dinner at the Moose lodge in El Centro and on Saturday, a breakfast in Brawly California, put on the by Lions club. The marines would also participate in a parade in Brawly and take lunch at the Elks club with two Medal of Honor awardees John Baca and John Finn. After lunch, the hunters were taken to the Brawly rodeo and then to a nice Mexican dinner to finish off the night before the hunt. To finish off a perfect weekend everyone involved were given the chance to taste some of the pheasant shot that day, fed a great steak dinner at a local Veterans of Foreign Wars center and presented with baseball caps, hunting knives and given a chance to express their thoughts on the weekend’s events.