Armed Forces Afield

men on a hunt
Backcountry Hunters & Anglers’ Armed Forces Initiative is focused on getting the military community involved in conservation.

I sat up in my layout blind in an Arkansas mud field amidst a thousand snow goose decoys. Ray Penny, the CEO of G&H Decoys, in Henrietta, Oklahoma, sat up in the blind next to me and offered me a cigar. Ray had arrived in camp the previous night and been asleep in his blind, snoring loudly, five minutes before legal shooting time. Wide awake now, he contentedly puffed on a victory cigar. 

The two of us were in Arkansas as part of an event hosted by Backcountry Hunters & Anglers’ Armed Forces Initiative, a program focused on getting the military community involved in the conservation conversation. G&H Decoys had donated the opportunity to take a mix of 12 active-duty soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and veterans on a spring snow goose hunt to teach them about waterfowl hunting and the Light Goose Conservation Order—and, with any luck, to ignite a passion for waterfowling that would last a lifetime. 

Earlier that morning in the dark we had parked the trucks next to an old grain silo a half-mile from where we would set up. The participants unloaded the trailer of G&H decoys and staked out the field 200 yards in every direction. After reviewing the decoy layout and blind camouflage, the group settled in 30 minutes before shooting light. It was then that Ray had begun snoring loudly, his breath creating columns of steam in the night air. Soon the Marine on my left was snoring, too, and down the line the sounds of sleep drifted over the decoys. 

It wasn’t long before the first flock of geese started to cackle, as family groups of 10 to 20 birds began lifting off the shallow lake a mile to the north. “Birds in the air,” I hissed. The command carried down the line, and immediately all eyes were scanning the sky, searching for the small clouds of white forming on the horizon. 

The geese began approaching just as they had during the previous day’s scouting trip. We let one goose land, then another pair, and within seconds 10 geese were pecking around in the decoys. The new hunters’ anticipation seeped through the blinds—fueled by having had to wake up at 2:30 am, stumble from their sleeping bags, slam cups of coffee and breakfast burritos, and then slog through six inches of Arkansas mud to put out a thousand decoys.

I watched a flock of a hundred geese drift closer. The wind at our backs let the geese glide from their roost with hardly a wingbeat until they were on top of us. A beautiful blue-phase goose landed only yards from Ray’s feet beside a prototype decoy he was testing. The command to “Take ’em” was given, and it ignited the short fuse to an explosion of action. Blind doors flew open, and guns came up blazing, leaving the air caked with smoke and feathers. “No time to pick them up,” I yelled. “Reload and tuck in!”

Another flock of geese was hovering in a thin line on the horizon and headed toward us. Thirty seconds later 250 birds were approaching the decoys. Nervous whispers ran down the line: “Safety check,” “Stay low, here they come” and then “Oh, man, they’re right here . . . .”

The group shot 122 birds in 79 minutes. In between flights we sent out runners with the Lab to grab downed birds and stuff them in blinds. Boxes of shells were passed back and forth as hunters replenished ammo. Fingers and knuckles showed the blood of cuts and scrapes, betraying the hunters’ inexperience reloading in the blinds’ tight quarters. 

When the flocks started to dissipate, we took the time to conduct a thorough search for all of the downed birds. Twelve grown men and a Lab splashing around in the mud chasing birds was quite the sight. 

Ray handed me a cigar and held up a flame, and we sat there in the moment, exhausted. The participants slipped and slid in the mud, some holding geese high, others snapping selfies, comparing Ross’ geese, snow geese, blues and immatures. Ray reached over and put his hand on my shoulder. There wasn’t anything that needed to be said. We had done our jobs.

Backcountry Hunters & Anglers’ Armed Forces Initiative hosts a hundred of these types of events annually in 46 states and three Canadian provinces for thousands of veterans, active-duty military, reservists and national guardsmen. Applicants from throughout the US sign up online to attend. The events are not held at five-star lodges with catered menus and bird pluckers standing by with glasses of whiskey at the end of the day. They are run by veteran volunteers who have experienced the positive effects of the outdoors, hunting and fishing on their own lives and who want to pass that along to others.

There are three objectives for every event:

Replicability. The focus is on teaching all the skills needed for participants to recreate the experiences they have had the next weekend—or the next season—without depending on any other organization. 

Creating a tribe. The feelings of camaraderie felt on active duty are the first things that many veterans lose upon exiting the military. The program strives to create a community of folks with similar life experiences and a shared passion for wildlife and the outdoors.

Conservation awareness. The goal is to produce a moment where time stands still—where the smell of mud and spoiled grain mix with spent gunpowder and feathers. A moment where all else fades into the background of life. If BHA does its job, 2,000 members of the military community should have this experience each year. When that experience is combined with a knowledge of standard conservation practices and instruction on how to interact with the conservation community at town-hall meetings, make DNR presentations and even offer Congressional testimony, BHA is helping to mold conservationists with a fierce passion for natural resources.

It’s no secret that there is a major issue with suicide in the military community. We’ve lost more people to suicide than we have in combat in the past 20 years. That’s another reason BHA puts on events like this and why Marine veteran Ray Penny spends his company’s money to support the Armed Forces Initiative. Many of us have lost people who would still be here if we had known then what we know now. The fact is that members of the military community are walking around every day with incredible sadness—call it PTSD, depression, survivors’ guilt or any of its hundreds of names. If through hunting and conservation we can take that weight off for one day, one hour or even one moment, we have to try to do it. It’s not about bagging birds or about the bands or the taxidermy; it’s about the camaraderie, the group and the struggle. It’s about giving people a new mission—a mission of conservation.

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