By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
As is often the case, Charles Jones of Asheville was behind the wheel of his 18-wheeler when he was passed by a vehicle with a special tag that really got his attention.
It was a Purple Heart tag, and Jones, a former Army Green Beret, said an idea popped into his head and it wouldn’t leave.
When Jones is not on the road, he’s usually at Scott Deuel’s Stick Lake Hunting Preserve on top of Straight Mountain north of Springville, Ala.
“I thought, why don’t we have a hunt for some of these wounded warriors?” Jones said. After discussing it with his wife, Linda, and Deuel, Jones was on it like an English setter on a bobwhite quail.
Lt. General Leroy Sisco (ret.) with the Military Warriors Support Foundation lined up two military veterans and Thad Forester to participate in the Stick Lake bird hunt with plenty of quail, chukkars and pheasants.
The veterans were Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ismael (Ish) Villegas, who was awarded two Silver Stars for bravery under fire in Afghanistan, and Staff Sgt. Johnnie Yellock, who suffered significant leg injuries in Afghanistan when an improvised explosive device (IED) blew up the vehicle he was riding in.
Thad Forester was there to honor his kid brother, Mark, who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to his country. Senior Airman Mark Forester was killed in action by a sniper as he came to the aide of one of his fallen comrades in Afghanistan.
With the help of Matthew Glencoe, Thad wrote “My Brother in Arms: The Exceptional Life of Mark Andrew Forester, United States Air Force Combat Controller” to share Mark’s legacy with the world.
“Mark and Ish worked together in Afghanistan,” Thad said. “Mark was killed in 2010. He had a teammate go down, the team’s medic. In his effort to rescue his teammate, Mark was shot.”
Thad said the book was three years in the making, and it’s basically a biography of Mark’s life.
“I wrote it for two reasons,” Thad said. “The main reason was so our family would have a record of his life. He was 29 years old when he died. The second reason is so his example of patriotism and excellence can be shared with the world.
“The book covers his whole life. Mark and I were the two youngest of five kids. I was four years older than Mark. We were definitely close. When he was in college, he lived with me in Tuscaloosa. He lived with me until he joined the military in 2007.”
Thad said the Stick Lake bird hunt illustrates how there are people who want to honor American heroes.
“My Brother in Arms” is available on Amazon and the Books-A-Million and Barnes and Noble websites. The Trussville Books-A-Million has it in stock.
Mark Forester, Villegas and Yellock were all Air Force Combat Controllers in Afghanistan, a duty that put them on the front lines every day.
“Special Forces teams on the ground are not allowed to leave what is called ‘the wire’ unless they have someone in our capacity to go with them,” Yellock said. “So we’re attached to every Special Forces team outside ‘the wire’ as their air-to-ground liaison. We’re right beside the team leader, and we relay their objectives to the pilots overhead. We often had to select which munitions would work best, what type of bomb to drop, what type of fusing to use. We had to coordinate all that for the safety of all the other air assets overhead.”
Yellock was deployed in Afghanistan when Mark Forester was killed, which was chronicled by the National Geographic channel’s series “Eyewitness War.” The iconic photo of Forester with his dust-covered Alabama Crimson Tide hat came from that documentary series.
“I wasn’t able to leave to come back to the States with Mark’s body,” Yellock said. “My parents went to Mark’s funeral in my stead. They drove from Texas to Alabama for the funeral. After my deployment, I spent a lot of time with the Foresters in Haleyville, Ala.”
Six months later, Yellock deployed to Afghanistan again. Seven days in, he was hit with an IED that ravaged his lower legs.
“I had to put two of the three tourniquets on my legs to help the medics save my life and provide useful information to the team so they could get out of the area safely,” he said. “I also called in the Medivac aircraft to get me to the hospital.”
More than two years of physical therapy and 30 surgeries later, Yellock doesn’t plan to stop any time soon. He does realize that the injuries will hasten his mobility issues in the future.
“I’m trying to get it while I can,” he said. “I know the things that are impaired on my legs are going to transfer up my body. It’s already taken a toll on my knees, my hips and my lower back. My goal is to not stop and do what I can to live life to the fullest.
“Hunts like this are awesome. It gets us out of our day-to-day and brings us to an oasis like this and provides us with food, lodging, ammo and birds. It’s a great time to hang out with friends and like-minded people like Charles, who is one of the old school grunts. It’s incredible what they do, and it does make a difference.”
It was obvious during the bird hunt that Villegas maintains an intensity in all his endeavors even though his combat days are likely over, much to his chagrin. Despite his bravery, Villegas’ humility downplays his role in the combat incidents.
“My first Silver Star came after I was in the country (Afghanistan) for about two months,” he said. “One of the Green Berets got hit on top of the hill while he was helping a couple other of our guys who were wounded. We went up about a month after they got hit. They remote-detonated an IED on us. There were only three of us. We were fighting it out for about 25 minutes. They had put a lot of IEDs all over the area, because they knew we were coming back.
“I just sprinted across the area to get to where I could get eyes on the enemy and drop some bombs and get our guys out of harm’s way. We ended up fighting it out for about 16 hours. We had a lot of help from airborne assets, mainly helicopters and fighters overhead. We used them to target the enemy and get rid of the threat.”
Villegas’ second Silver Star came in 2011 on the last of his seven deployments to Afghanistan. Villegas said a week-long mission turned into three weeks.
“We encountered heavy resistance on the way in,” he said. “We continued to fight day in and day out. Right off the bat, we started taking fire and there were a lot of IEDs. Half of our team was wounded. Our Afghan partners took a lot of casualties. Basically, we just fought it out for three weeks.”
The military version adds more details, indicating that Villegas pulled a wounded soldier behind a wall and held off the insurgents until Villegas’ team could evacuate the “kill zone.”
Villegas, who has been on several hunts like the one at Stick Lake, said he promotes the wounded warrior hunts to all his fellow soldiers.
“I was never a big hunter before I started coming to these events,” he said. “It’s very stress-relieving – being able to hang out with guys who know about the military and being around people who are very supportive of the military.
“I need it every now and then. It’s great to get away and hang around such amazing people who make a difference. I don’t think I’m ever going to get a chance to deploy again. It’s hard when you’re told you can’t do what you love to do. This puts me back a little bit into that mindset. It’s just fun.”
PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) Before starting the first hunt of the morning at Stick Lake Hunting Preserve, the hunting team pose for a group photo. The hunting team are: (from left) Charles Jones, Thad Forester, Mike McClendon (dog handler with Rock) Johnnie Yellock and Ish Villegas. A flushed quail tries to evade the hunters, but a well-placed shot sends the bird tumbling to the ground. Thad Forester’s tribute to his younger brother, Mark, is available in hardback, paperback and for Kindle.