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.
A first-time story
In fact, Keil’s hunt began not with a bang, but with a click. He and Shepherd, along with Jeff Vandriel, Keil’s hunting buddy and attendant, arrived mid afternoon on the first day of the hunt.
No sooner had Keil stowed his gear than he and Vandriel were getting rigged to hunt. Turkeys were gobbling and would soon be heading to roost. Time was of the essence if any hunting was to happen that day.
In the rush to get Keil rigged up, nobody thought to rack a shell in the chamber. Keil finally got settled in a ground blind along with veteran turkey hunter Col. Dick Weede of Lexington, VA., (USMC, Ret.), who did the spotting and calling.
“The bird came in and it was awesome,” Keil says. Intent on the decoys, the gobbler didn’t notice the low hum and whir as Keil maneuvered the joy stick on the shooting platform as he kept the wood-stocked pump lined up. At Weede’s whispered command, Keil pressed his lips over the sip-and-puff mechanism that actuates the trigger and…click.
Weede quickly shucked a shell into the chamber, but it was too late. About a half-hour later, however, another gobbler answered Weede’s seductive calling and, at a paced-off distance of 41 yards, Keil joined the ranks of hunters who, once they experienced the heart-pounding thrill of watching a gobbler strut his way to a call, can’t imagine what life was like prior to that moment.
More than another hunt
For Weede, a Vietnam veteran, the experience was more than just another turkey hunt. “I’ve been hunting turkeys since 1977,” he says. “But to be able to hunt with Matt and help him make the shot of his life…it was the most memorable turkey hunt I’ve ever been on.”
Prior to his injury, Keil’s hunting experience was limited to one dove hunt with his brother-in-law. Since returning, he’s been hunting a number of times.
“The camaraderie is amazing,” he says. “Not only do we bond over the hunting experience, but we talk about injuries and heal that way, too. Everyone goes through injury a little bit differently and to talk creates the healing process.”
In that sense, Keil is an inspiration to other wounded warriors. Too often, injured veterans, regardless of the war, slip into a shell upon return to civilian life – a shell polluted with drugs or alcohol or self-pity. There are answers to that, and many of them can be found around the supper table or campfire of a hunting camp.
“If I can get out as a quadriplegic, anyone can do it,” Keil says. In fact, he works with PVA to encourage injured veterans to take advantage of the sports program the group offers.
Accomplishment and victory
The hunts aren’t trophy hunts, Deal stresses. “The key is to laugh and have fun. The big thing is camaraderie and being out there with the other guys, hunting.” And it’s the feeling of accomplishment and victory the experience gives the injured vets.
It’s a victory more and more injured vets need to experience, Deal says, which is why he’s happy to have Keil on board. “For him to go to a hospital and meet with these guys…he can look at them and say “look at me. Now get up and let’s go.’” For Keil, who has been described as “relentlessly upbeat,” it’s a mission he’s glad to take point on.
Coming home from war is tough, especially coming home with injuries. Always has been. But there’s greater recognition of that now, and there are more opportunities for injured vets to find positive outlets for their emotions and energies. “People ask me how many we help in a year,” Deal says. “I don’t know. I don’t keep count. It’s one at a time.”
T.S. Eliot wrote that home is where one starts from. For wounded warriors, it is also a place they dream of returning to.
Injured veterans interested in applying for a hunt, or landowners interested in hosting a hunt, can get information by e-mailing Deal at [email protected], or going to www.pvaheritagefund.org.
Deal is interested in reaching not only injured veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but older veterans as well. “We need more vets to apply, especially some of the older vets from past wars who would like to get involved,” he says. “Many have not been part of this surge that’s going on now.”