BROTHERHOOD BONDING: Sportsmen welcome veterans for fellowship in the great outdoors

Finger Lake Times

A biting November wind in an open field can cut to the core.

But a group of duck hunters seemed immune to the chill, warmed by both an activity they enjoyed and the fellowship they had found with one another.

For four days earlier this month, five veterans from across the U.S. hunted and bonded with one another here in the Finger Lakes — brought here by the Wounded Warriors in Action Foundation. Their guides were local sportsmen who donated their time, sharing their love of the outdoors and hunting.

The five Purple Heart recipients from Pennsylvania, Indiana, Texas and Minnesota arrived — appropriately enough — on Veterans Day and were treated to a lasagna dinner put on by the Ovid VFW. But it was early to bed, as their wakeup call the following morning came at 3:30 a.m.

For three days it was a full schedule of hunting — waterfowl in the morning and deer hunting (with crossbows) in the afternoon. The veterans stayed at an upscale lakefront home on Cayuga Lake in Varick that had been donated.

On Friday morning, the group ventured to mucklands of Savannah for some duck hunting. Deep in the remnants of a harvested cornfield was a blind made of cornstalks, a group of duck decoys positioned nearby. Three of the vets joined two guides in that blind.

Although Army vet Tony Payne of Indiana, who was stationed in Germany and injured in Afghanistan, had hunted small game and deer before, fowl was new to him. After a successful morning, he deemed it “something new I can add to my life to do and involve my children, too,” he said.

As the hunt wound down mid-morning, those in the duck blind crouched in rustling cornstalks as guide Steve Sandroni of Seneca Falls made some duck calls. Fellow guide John Nolander of Varick, a Wounded Warriors in Action associate, peered skyward on lookout.

“Here they come,” he said.

“Get ready fellas,” said Sandroni — and as the flock neared the blind he yelled “Take ‘em!”

Gunshots quickly rang out and the crew then assessed their success. It was not so good this round, although no one seemed particularly disappointed.

“That’s all right. I’ve gotten a lot today,” said Sammie Braswell of Minnesota, an Army vet who served in Desert Shield, Desert Storm and Afghanistan.

Payne joked that as a rookie, he had an excuse.

Since all had reached their duck limit that day — and they had an afternoon of hunting ahead of them — they exited the blind and ventured into the surrounding field to collect their ducks and gather the decoys.

The two other hunting vets, who were positioned elsewhere, joined the group and exchanged handshakes and queries about how the morning had gone.

That connection visibly affected Keith Tidball, a senior extension associate with Cornell University’s Department of Natural Resources and also the science advisor to the Wounded Warriors in Action Foundation. It was Tidball, of Fayette, who first suggested the group organize hunts here in the Finger Lakes; this year’s was the second one.

Professionally, Tidball is keenly interested in how outdoor recreation can be therapeutic for those who have been traumatized. He signed on as the foundation’s science advisor about five years ago and soon realized that the Finger Lakes would be an ideal place to host veterans.

“I’ve been on lots of these events in other locales and said we need to do one here,” said Tidball, also a member of the New York Guard.

The hunting community and others answered that call.

Tidball said fellow members of the Kuneytown Sportsmen’s Club volunteered to support the event, as did the Ovid and Seneca Falls VFW posts and Seneca County’s Cornell Cooperative Extension (Tidball’s wife, Moira, works there and provided game cooking and tips on how to process and prepare game.) The state Department of Environmental Conservation donated the price of hunting licenses and the Seneca Falls Ducks Unlimited Chapter provided federal duck stamps. Tidball said Bob Stuck, superintendent of facilities for Seneca County, coordinated logistics and was instrumental in securing support from the Seneca County Board of Supervisors. Frontenac Fowlers of Union Springs donated the goose hunt on Thursday morning, with game preparation and lunch. In addition, Scott Ridley of Fayette signed on to process any deer and the Kuneytown club donated funds for chest coolers and overnight shipping so the hunters’ game could be sent to their homes. Tidball said even his middle- and high-school aged daughters awakened at 3 a.m. to make hot breakfast sandwiches for the hunters.

All of those efforts did not go unnoticed.

Jeremy Lake of Pennsylvania, a Marine veteran who was deployed once to Iraq and three times to Afghanistan, said he Googled veteran hunts and discovered the Wounded Warriors in Action Foundation. After contacting them, he learned that same day he qualified for a hunt.

“It exceeds my expectations,” Lake said of his Finger Lakes experience. “Just being out here with all these guys is great. These guides are wonderfully generous with their time and commitment.

“ ... They made those birds come in pretty nice. It was easy,” he said.

Jeremy Smith of Pennsylvania, an Army vet and Wounded Warriors in Action Foundation associate, said the program’s aim is to link veterans while doing an activity they all enjoy — hunting.

“The 100 percent goal is not to come out and kill,” Smith said. “It’s a different world when we’re together and that’s what it really boils down to.”

Nolander of Varick, who helped guide that morning’s hunt, is a Vietnam veteran himself. He said while he never encountered negative backlash or a lack of respect when he returned home, some of his friends did — not uncommon in that era. In some small way, helping today’s vets helps right that past wrong.

“We just want them to know we appreciate what they did,” Nolander said.

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