Last November a group of eight American military personnel stepped onto unfamiliar ground. Dressed in full camouflage, they were far from any battlefield. They were in fact at beautiful Bird Haven Ranch in northern California for a weekend of duck hunting, courtesy of Paul Bonderson Jr. and Ducks Unlimited volunteers.
Bonderson, who owns Bird Haven Ranch and is a DU senior vice president, extended the invitation after learning about a remarkable organization called Freedom Hunters. This nonprofit group's primary goal is to honor active-duty service members and combat veterans by taking them on outdoor hunting adventures. Chris Parkhurst, West Coast coordinator for Freedom Hunters, worked with Bonderson to arrange for service members and a few of their family members to enjoy two days of guided hunting at Bird Haven Ranch.
"These men and women sacrifice so much, at great peril to themselves, to ensure our freedom," Bonderson said. "Offering them the opportunity to enjoy waterfowl hunting, whether they're experts or novices, is a great way to thank them for serving our country."
Freedom Hunters relies on conservation organizations, outdoor sporting retailers, corporations, state agencies, and landowners to help provide everything the veterans need to participate in these hunts. For many service members, these hunts offer a chance to reconnect to the outdoor life they enjoyed before their service. For others, it's a first-time opportunity that could easily become a lifelong tradition.
"Words cannot describe our hunting trip," said Master Sergeant Chad A. Luers (USMC). "Chris and Paul gave all of us memories that will last a lifetime. It was my first duck hunt and I'm hooked for life. I can't wait to go again!"
"This experience was so much more than I expected," Captain Robert Miller said. "My family and I had such an incredible time. We learned so much about DU and its conservation efforts that my wife and I decided to become DU supporters for life. Plus, my wife now wants to learn to hunt and both of my children are dying to go with us again! It's amazing that this one experience has become something my whole family is excited to do together."
"This was an outstanding event," Parkhurst added. "All of our service members were over the moon in their appreciation for this opportunity. Paul and the DU volunteers were so welcoming, so gracious. And best of all, the hunting was great. For a lot of our people, this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Freedom Hunters is a small grassroots organization manned solely by volunteers. Through their efforts and the generosity of hunting enthusiasts like Bonderson, Freedom Hunters has been able to provide more than a thousand hunting and fishing adventures for American military men and women in just the past six years alone. According to Parkhurst, these hunting and fishing trips help veterans reconnect with the outdoor community and ease the transition back into civilian life. For more information on how you can help Freedom Hunters, visit freedomhunters.org. —Wendy Hopkins