Wounded Warriors in Action Foundation

Purple Hearts afield: Group gives wounded veterans a chance to hunt

Duluth News
Sam Cook

Tony Simone grew up hunting white-tailed deer in Pennsylvania, but that was a long time ago. Before he started flying for the Air Force. Before the day his chopper took enemy fire and crashed in Afghanistan. Before five of his crew members were killed and Simone came away with “a dent on the top of my head like a cereal bowl.”

How Simone came to be sitting in a deer blind near Lake Nebagamon with Jamie Vee of Iron River on a recent October evening is another story. Simone, 34, now of Joliet, Ill., was one of four veterans with Purple Hearts who were taking part in a three-day weekend of hunting and fishing courtesy of the nonprofit group Wounded Warriors in Action. The Florida-based nonprofit foundation works to put veterans who have been awarded Purple Hearts back in the field or on the water as they deal with the trauma of war. The group was founded in 2007.

Vee, 33, is an avid hunter himself. When he heard about what WWIA was doing for vets, he was quick to offer his services. Simone was hunting on Vee’s land, overlooking a pasture surrounded by oaks and maples and pines.

Not far way, on more Vee family land, Marine vet Josh Krueger of Hubertus, Wis., was sitting in another deer stand with a compound bow in his hand. Already, a couple of spike bucks, the first of several deer he would see that evening, were headed his way.

Krueger is a senior associate with WWIA who helped supervise this hunting and fishing event. He’s been involved with WWIA for three years. The group is supported entirely through donations and by volunteers.

“It’s really the American sportsmen and guys like Jamie,” Krueger had said as he changed into his hunting gear that night. “They believe in the spirit of the outdoors to bring guys together and help guys heal.”

Krueger, 36, has done plenty of healing of his own. Wounded when a roadside bomb exploded next to his Humvee in Iraq in 2005, he lost an eye and suffered severe trauma to his left hand.

Ask him how his eye is these days, and he quips, “Which one? The one with the American flag?”

His right eye can still see clearly through his bow sights. His left is an artificial one that bears a red, white and blue American flag against a white background.

“That’s the one I see my country with,” Krueger said.

Elsewhere in the woods near Lake Nebagamon, two other veterans with Purple Hearts were bowhunting with other local guides. Before their weekend of bowhunting, the veterans had spent a day fishing for smallmouth bass with Jeff Evans and for muskies with Dave Brown, both of Iron River.

Simone peered through the window of his blind as Vee sat beside him. At one point, a flock of wild turkeys paid them a visit.

Between hunts during the the weekend, both Simone and Krueger openly shared their stories, including the events that earned them Purple Hearts.

Simone, the son of a Marine, was a captain in the Air Force in 2010 when his helicopter went down. Already, he had served two tours in Iraq, flying search-and-rescue missions. Now he had been in Afghanistan for nearly four months. He was due to leave just a few days after his helicopter crashed.

“I was flying a Pave Hawk helicopter, similar to the Army’s Blackhawk,” Simone said. “That day, we had a crew of seven. We were in the Helmand Province, going in on a search-and-rescue for two wounded Marines. We got shot down when we were going in for the second time. We took one of them out earlier. We should have seen it coming. They were waiting for us. I think it was small-arms or RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). It hit the tail rotor. We spun like a top. We could have auto-rotated straight down but we would have come down on, or dangerously near, troops on the ground — good guys. I tried to fly it out. We spun like a top. I don’t remember smashing into the ground.”

High impact

Simone and a surviving gunner were immediately rescued by a second Pave Hawk crew. Despite the fact that Simone was wearing a helmet, the front of his head was crushed when he hit the flight panel. A quarter of Simone’s skull has been replaced by titanium mesh, he said.

The neurological damage he suffered that day still affects his speech slightly and the use of several muscle groups. He uses a cane for stability when walking. For hunting, he shoots a crossbow, and he wears a patch over one eye that’s hard to hold closed when he shoots. He has some trouble with his memory, he said. Vee assisted him to and from the blind.

“It was really an eye-opening and rewarding weekend for me — a life-changer, for sure,” Vee said. “The most rewarding thing was being able to give somebody an opportunity they don’t normally have, and showing them there’s small victories to be had, that there are always things to look forward to.”

Simone has retired after five years in the Air Force. He lives with his wife and son and daughter in Joliet. He draws strength, he said, from God, his wife, his children, his parents.

“I’m in the process of accepting who I am and why I’m here,” Simone said.

In three evenings of bowhunting, Vee moved Simone’s blind twice, trying to put him where the deer were. Simone saw does and fawns but no bucks. In that area, hunters are allowed to shoot only bucks.

Lots of deer

Krueger, too, saw deer every time he hunted on land owned by Vee’s dad, Scott Vee of Brule, over the weekend. Does, fawns, small bucks, big bucks. Jamie had worked hard to put him in a good spot.

“Jamie is awesome — a good dude,” said Krueger, a robust man who shot a bear with his bow earlier this fall in Wisconsin.

Krueger works as an operations manager for a fire protection company in Menomonee Falls, Wis. He retired from the Marines after the injury that nearly took his life 10 years ago. He comes from a long line of Marines, following his dad and grandfather and great-grandfather.

“When I grew up, it was always, ‘I want to be a Marine. I want to be a Marine. I want to be a Marine,’ ” Krueger said.

He went a little “sideways” in his teens, he said.

“My dad said, ‘If you join the Marine Corps, I’ll forgive you for everything you’ve done,’ ” he said.

He signed up. He has no regrets about his choice.

“None at all,” Krueger said. “My only regret is that I couldn’t stay in longer.”

Bad day in Fallujah

One evening before a hunt near Lake Nebagamon, Krueger recalled the day the roadside bomb went off. He was manning the turret of a Humvee, up top, on a security detail patrol. His unit was charged with escorting the highest general in the Marines, Krueger said, but “the boss wasn’t along that day.”

Krueger and fellow Marines were patrolling in Fallujah, one of the most dangerous places in Iraq in the years after the U.S. invasion.

“When the bomb went off, I kind of fell into a buddy,” Krueger recalled.

He knew he had been hit.

“I just made a conscious decision that I wasn’t going to freak out,” he said. “My buddy said, ‘Krueger’s dead!’ ”

Krueger respectfully disagreed.

“I couldn’t see well because there was so much blood in my eyes,” he said. “I looked at him and said, ‘I’m not dead.’ ”

Arteries on both sides of Krueger’s neck had been cut.

“He put gloves to my neck to stop the bleeding,” Krueger said. “A (medical) corpsman came up. They took me to the last vehicle in the convoy and took me to (the) base for surgery. I could tell by how fast they were moving that it wasn’t good. I died five times — they said I ‘coded’ five times. I think it was from loss of blood.

“The next thing I remember is they were loading me into a helicopter. The bird lifted off. One guy kept trying to put an airway through my nose, but I kept pulling it out. He said, ‘You don’t want that in there?’ That’s the last thing I remember. I woke up three or four days later in Bethesda, Maryland” at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

He had lost his left eye. His left hand was badly mangled. Doctors spent 14 hours trying to save his hand during the first surgery, Krueger said. Several more surgeries would follow.

“They told me I’d never do pull-ups again,” Krueger said. “I love it when they tell me I can’t do something. (At a follow-up appointment) I did pull-ups in his office. The strength in the hand is good. Fine-motor skills aren’t as good — things like picking up a dime.”

But his head is in a good place.

“Attitude is 95 percent of it,” he said. “You gotta laugh at yourself.”

Krueger saw 12 to 15 deer his first evening hunting near Lake Nebagamon, he said. He saw another half-dozen the next morning. No bucks ventured close enough for a shot.

That last evening, he had a doe and fawns, two spike bucks and a couple of big bucks in the field near his stand.

“They were just toying with me,” he told Vee under a crescent moon after the hunt.

At one point, Krueger said, one of the big bucks sauntered through the field just 45 yards from his elevated stand, just out of bow range. It didn’t spook, but neither did it stop or come closer. It just kept walking until it disappeared into the woods.