By DAVID RAINER
Alabama’s hunting community welcomed a new member recently in Macon County, and the new hunter pulled off a feat that often takes hunters years to accomplish – bag an eight-point buck.
Gary Baller of Fayetteville, N.C., joined fellow Marine Corps veterans in the “Wounded Veterans Hunt” and scored quickly.
“I never fired a hunting rifle until I got the deer,” said Baller, who served as a combat engineer in Iraq. “Doug (Houston of Mobile) and I were sitting in the stand and the deer crossed the road to our left. I wasn’t able to get a shot off, but about 20 or 30 minutes later, he walks right out in front of me. He starts walking toward us. Of course, I’m a new hunter so I was going to rush the gun right out of the blind.
“Doug whispered, ‘Hold on, don’t spook him.’ He finally turned to the side and started walking. He stopped and put his head up and gave me the perfect shot and I took him down. He dropped right there. An eight-point buck, first hunt – I was smiling from ear to ear. Doug was telling me it was probably six or seven years before he got his first eight-point.”
During his tour of duty, Baller suffered four level-two concussions and a burst eardrum as a result of 11 IED (improvised explosive device) explosions and one car bomb. He is truly appreciative of the effort to get him and his fellow veterans into the Alabama woods for a deer hunt.
“I was amazed this actually was going to come through,” he said. “I was amazed this much was being done for us. It’s a blessing, that’s for sure. I just picked up fishing a few months ago, and now I’ve got a new hobby. I’m turning into a real man, I guess.”
The “Wounded Veterans Hunt” is the brainchild of Capt. Lee Stuckey and Master Sgt. Jeff McKinney, both Marines stationed in Montgomery.
“We were just sitting around talking about our ability to take people hunting,” Stuckey said. “We wanted to be able to help the wounded vets in the area. We’re both avid hunters. We started talking about it and the plan fell together.
McKinney said he has land leased in Crenshaw County, but they decided the logistics wouldn’t work to hunt his lease. That’s when the word went out to the Shorter community and others in Montgomery.
“All the people around Shorter and the people we asked in Montgomery all helped,” Stuckey said. “Anybody we asked, they jumped on it and ran with it. They said, ‘What can we do and how can we help?” I had lieutenant colonels telling me they would clean bathrooms just to help out and help the troops. Just because we had the idea, the execution is the most important part. It was the people around Shorter and the volunteers who executed the plan.”
Twenty-five veterans participated in the hunt and the injuries ranged from head trauma to amputees.
“We’ve got several vets dealing with post traumatic stress disorder,” Stuckey said. “That’s the thing – people seem to think visible wounds are the worst, but you can’t get prosthetic brains. The mental wounds, you can’t see them, but sometimes they’re worse than the physical wounds.”
McKinney said they decided not to just invite vets from recent conflicts, but to open it to anybody and everybody who had served. He said the Marine Corps League helped to get the word to the veterans. Several World War II veterans participated in the event, as well as vets from Vietnam and Bosnia.
“I thought it would just be vets from Iraq and Afghanistan, but Master Sergeant McKinney explained that we could show all the generations and build the camaraderie,” Stuckey said. “We could show the old Corps and the new Corps. Also, we can show these guys who were recently wounded an example of what’s going to happen to them in 30 years – you can still be successful and fight through whatever you’re going through now. And no matter what’s going on in your head, it gets better. You can look at the other veterans and they will tell you, personally, that it gets better.
“The thing is we didn’t want to just do white-tailed deer hunting. We didn’t want to do just one event to see how it would go over. We partnered with the Outdoor Recreation and Heritage Foundation (a wing of Paralyzed Veterans of America) and the thing is we don’t want to help just one day. If somebody wants to go fishing, we’re going to take them fishing. If they want to go duck hunting, turkey hunting or just go bowling, we’ll take them. We want to continue an outreach to veterans, whether they were wounded or not. We want to constantly thank them, even though we’re veterans ourselves. We know what the sacrifices are. We wanted to do this to show other people they can help. All they have to do is reach out their hand and say, ‘What can I do for a veteran and thank him for his sacrifices?’”
Stuckey said the feedback from the participants and volunteers has been all thumbs up.
“Everybody has said it’s been awesome,” he said. “It’s all about the camaraderie and the competition in the big buck contest, or the little buck contest. It’s great fun and we get to exchange stories and see that the Marine Corps hasn’t changed that much in 40 years. And the hunting has been awesome; we’ve killed two eight-points and a 10-point, several does and six or eight hogs. We had a couple of misses on some nice bucks, too.”
Gene Flournoy, the landowner whose barn was used as headquarters for the hunt, said he didn’t hesitate when Stuckey asked him to help.
“Lee lives next door and he came over one day and told me about his idea,” Flournoy said. “I told him I was on board 100 percent. This is a way for us to give back a little bit, because these guys give a lot.”
Joe Whatley, one of the landowners who donated the use of his property, said although this was his first time to help a wounded veterans group, he’d hosted several events for disabled hunters in the last several years. Whatley also put Aaron Howell of Potsdam, N.Y., on the aforementioned trophy 10-point.
“Aaron shot the buck with a .30-06 he borrowed from somebody for the hunt,” Whatley said. “It was about a 240-yard shot. I haven’t hunted in about three years, but I do this about every other day. The ones that are more handicapped or more challenged, the better I feel about it.”
Howell, a double amputee, said they watched three does for several hours before the big buck showed up.
“A fourth doe came into the field and the buck popped out right behind her,” said Howell, who said he hunted whitetails in his native New York state and around Camp Lejeune before he was injured in the IED explosion. “He trotted across the field and stopped. He wasn’t right on the doe, but he seemed to be cruising around checking the does. It was a little over 200 yards and there was a little bit of brush in the way. I was hoping it wouldn’t deflect the bullet, and it didn’t.
“I’ve killed many deer, but this is definitely my biggest buck. I knew it was a good buck. When they brought him to the stand for me to get a look at him, there was definitely no ground shrinkage. He was every bit as nice as I remembered seeing him when he came out.”
Leonard Burt Dennis, Outreach Director with the University of Alabama’s Campus Veterans Association, participated in the hunt and hopes to see it grow.
“This is something if you want to do something fun, meet some people and kinda feel at home, when you haven’t felt at home for a while,” said Dennis, also a wounded veteran. “In my case, the Marine Corps was my home and my family for four years. You raise (the wounded veterans) up and don’t let them feel sorry for themselves. And you don’t let yourself feel sorry for them. We don’t sit around telling war stories, we just enjoy being around other Marines.”
PHOTO: (By David Rainer) Aaron Howell, a Marine wounded in Iraq, and landowner Joe Whatley, right, admire the big 10-point buck Howell took during the “Wounded Veterans” hunt recently in Macon County. Twenty five veterans participated in the inaugural event started by Capt. Lee Stuckey and Master Sgt. Jeff McKinney.