By Gary Koehler
Jackie Franklin spent his teenage years hunting squirrels, rabbits, deer, raccoons, and other critters on or near his family's farm in north-central Alabama . He then served a four-year hitch in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam era. Shortly after his return home, he was severely injured when a falling tree struck him. A wheelchair has been part of his life ever since.
Like any number of disabled individuals, Franklin was forced to change his lifestyle. Long hikes in the woods were no longer possible. Facets of everyday life that most of us take for granted presented challenges. Because he was mobility-impaired, many activities seemed out of his reach.
"One day I decided that one of the ways to get back participating in life was to get outdoors," Franklin says. "After I had the accident and was paralyzed, I didn't do much hunting for several years. I wanted to get out and do that again."
I got involved with the PVA (Paralyzed Veterans of America) in the 1990s," Franklin continues. "They sponsored me to go to the Wheelchair Games, and I fell in love with it. I haven't stopped since."
Over the years, Franklin competed in air rifle target shooting, weight lifting, softball, javelin, discus, ping-pong, nine-ball, and other Wheelchair Games events. He also returned to hunting. And his horizons continue to expand.
"Two years ago, Ducks Unlimited and the PVA gave us the opportunity to do this duck hunt in Arkansas ," Franklin says. "It was the first time I had ever been duck hunting, the first time I had ever shot at a duck. Killed a banded drake mallard on my first shot. The certificate said the duck came out of Saskatoon , Saskatchewan . It was great."
Since then, Franklin has become more and more involved with PVA activities. He participates in a number of target-shooting events. He serves as PVA national secretary. He is a member of the organization's board of directors. And this summer, at age 51, he returned to the Wheelchair Games in St. Louis as a volunteer.
"When you are confined to a chair, you learn what you can and can't do real quick," Franklin says. "Then you start focusing on what you can do and make the best of it."
The PVA, which was chartered by Congress in 1946 and boasts 40,000 members nationwide, helps provide opportunities. One does not have to be a veteran to become involved. The organization's programs are geared for all ages. Target shooting, hunting, and fishing are just parts of the recreational package.
"We reach out to the average Joe who, say, may have been injured in a motorcycle accident, and to kids, all sorts of people," says Doug Warren, who serves as the PVA's shooting sports program development officer. "We have members who were wounded while in the service, but others became disabled as a result of accidents or illnesses. There are many causes.
"We want to pull people out of the house," says Warren, "get them away from the TV and make them aware of what's going on. Depression is a big problem with a lot of these guys. We spend a lot of time getting them out and getting them involved."
The PVA has chapters in every state. Trap shooting has long been a staple activity, and during the 1990s that program became national in scale, with a number of major competitions. The interest in hunting is also beginning to build.
"We are strong advocates for better health care for our members, but we also try to heal the spirit a little bit," Franklin says. "We want them participating, to get back into life. Some people get hurt, give up, sit on the porch in a rocking chair and wait to die. It doesn't have to be that way. We try to get them interested in something and support it. As far as hunting goes, we encourage every state to build or at least look into providing access for the disabled community."
Local citizens' service organizations, Boy Scouts, and others, including Ducks Unlimited volunteers, are among a growing contingent working to provide public waterfowl hunting opportunities for disabled sportsmen and women. With many state and federal wildlife agencies strapped for cash, materials, and labor necessary to build handicapped-accessible blinds and pits are often difficult to come by.
"If it's free, the state will often jump all over it," says Warren. "All it takes is for somebody to get the project started. Go to the refuge manager rather than go through all the red tape. Get hammers and nails and go do it."
Any number of DU volunteers have taken the initiative and done just that. By pooling their collective energy and resources, they have proven much can be accomplished. Plenty of examples are readily available.
"We completed our handicapped blind two years ago," says David Holmes, a DU district chairman from Columbia, Kentucky. "We started the paperwork two years before that. But we stuck with it, and got it done."
Contributing time and labor were a core group of about 10 DU members representing the South Central Kentucky DU Chapter committee. Permission was first obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to erect the blind at the Green River Lake Wildlife Management Area, located near Campbellsville. Then all systems were go.
"We went to a couple of different sources for materials and solicited help from a swimming pool builder," Holmes says. "The blind is all concrete-and-steel construction. All materials and labor were donated in our community. It's getting used. And people are still learning about it."
State and federal wildlife area managers often embrace the idea of handicapped-accessible blinds on their sites.
"We've got one in the works right now," says Steve Rockwood, who oversees Goodwin Wildlife Manage-ment Area in Florida. "The DU chapter proposed the idea, and we said, ‘Great, we'd love to do it.' We have to make sure it meets all the requirements, and a couple of changes were made to the design plan. As far as I know, it will be the first one in Florida."
The movers and shakers behind this project are members of the South Brevard DU Chapter.
"This is something we just wanted to do," says South Brevard DU chapter member Tony Rushing. "Personally, I don't even know a handicapped duck hunter. But we felt the blind was a good thing, a way of giving something back, and we have a perfect spot for it at Goodwin.
"A local construction company owner has offered to give us a crew to help out. Right now, we are still trying to get all the materials donated. When we get those materials, this blind is going to be built to spec, and it will have a 72-foot catwalk so anyone in a wheelchair can roll right to the blind and hunt."
In southwest Wisconsin, members of the Pecatonica River DU committee this spring completed construction of a handicapped-accessible blind at Blackhawk Memorial Park near Woodford in Lafayette County. The blind is situated on a river backwater.
"Our committee is only four years old," says DU Zone Chairman Tom Zwicker. "We became involved with the Lafayette County Alliance, which is a group of sportsmen's clubs in the county. The handicapped duck blind was one of a number of projects our DU committee people took on.
"The committee cleaned up 14 miles of brush along the river with chainsaws. They built the duck blind for the handicapped, put up wood duck houses, and cleaned up the park. This was all done on a volunteer basis. It helped our committee get established in the county, and it has also increased membership. We have 30 new members, and I think the reason behind that is that people in the area saw what DU could do when they put their mind to something."
At least two additional DU-related blind-building projects were in the works over the summer. One is located at the Marion Reservoir in Kansas, which is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Marion DU committee began construction in June. In Illinois, the DU committee headquartered in Clinton was in the process of making the necessary mandated adjustments in order to finish a handicapped-accessible blind at the Clinton Lake State Recreation Area. This effort has a special twist in that it is being built as a memorial to the late Corwin Lane, who served as a charter member of the DeWitt County DU Chapter.
Sometimes, DU staff members take it upon themselves to provide personal assistance for such undertakings. Regional Director Chip Heaps, for example, was among many individuals and private businesses supporting Justin Loyka, who built a mobile handicapped-accessible blind for use at Wye Island Natural Resources Management Area in Maryland. Loyka pursued this project in order to complete his Eagle Scout requirements.
"When that story about handicapped duck hunters ran in the magazine a couple of years ago, I received many inquiries from DU people who wanted to get involved, who wanted to do something," says Warren. "I passed the information on to local PVA chapters in their geographical area. It was really encouraging."
It's all about providing opportunities for those who share a common love of the outdoors, but may be in need of a helping hand to pursue their passion. Able bodies have begun to step up.