Healing 'the wounds the eye can't see'

St. Joseph News-Press
Jessica Shumaker

Ronald Ryker may have ended a day of hunting Friday without killing a deer, but he didn’t come out of the trip empty-handed.

Instead, he found something more priceless: a chance to connect with fellow combat-wounded veterans from across the country.

The White City, Kan., man was one of eight veterans, all Purple Heart recipients, selected to take part in the fourth annual MO-KAN Ducks N’ Bucks chapter weekend, held by the Wounded Warriors in Action Foundation, also known as WWIAF.

Each year the group brings veterans to Northeast Kansas and Northwest Missouri to take part in hunting whitetail deer and ducks over four days.

At the WWIAF’s annual fundraising dinner Friday night at the Clasbey Community Center, Mr. Ryker said he was overwhelmed by the generosity he saw in seeing the local community embracing the organization.

While it was a hard decision to come — his wife’s birthday landed over the weekend, but she supported his decision to participate — he said hunting was a therapeutic activity.

“That’s what I do to get away, I hunt and fish,” he said. “For me, that’s what I do to relax.”

Mr. Ryker served 12 years in the Army’s 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, based in Fort Riley, Kan. He was injured by a rocket-propelled grenade Nov. 2, 2003, in Iraq. He said beyond the physical act of hunting, being able to bond with others with similar experiences helps in the healing process.

“The physical wounds heal fast. The mental and emotional wounds, not so much,” he said.

Supporters at the fundraising dinner were packed in wall-to-wall to support the organization and the veterans taking part.

Dixon Gunther, chief operations officer of WWIAF, said funds raised at the event support the foundation and help it grow its events for veterans. Last year the group held 29 events for veterans, and this year they’ll hold 45.

Mr. Gunther said the event included veterans from Kansas, Missouri, Oregon, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, New York and Vermont.

“Our tagline is ‘American Heroes, American Sportsmen.’ What we do is basically latch up those two communities and it helps these guys, it helps heal the wounds that the eye can’t see,” Mr. Gunther said. “For a lot of these guys, getting back to being in the outdoors with outdoorsmen ... is a return to normalcy.”

Rodney Saunders of Savannah said he came along with a friend who had tickets. He thought the concept of the weekend was good for the vets.

“It’s giving them a great opportunity to enjoy the sport of hunting, and it’s great to see the people supporting them too, for their sacrifice,” he said. “I couldn’t believe the parking lot when I got in.”

In addition to coming to the dinner, Mr. Saunders’ friend, Jason Sarsany, also of Savannah, was hosting a veteran for the weekend. He’s taking one out hunting on Sunday. It’s his first year doing so, and he said he was excited.

“It’s neat,” he said. “My dad was a veteran. He served in Korea, and I was raised being respectful to veterans.”

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