By Brent Lawrence, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

From an ADA-accessible blind at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Sal Trujillo watched as the first rays of sun peeked above the surrounding hills. Flocks of mallards, pintails and tundra swans soon filled the sky.

Trujillo and 10 other U.S. military veterans celebrated Veterans Day with their first waterfowl hunt as a part of the inaugural Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Veterans Waterfowl Hunt. Ducks Unlimited has been a significant partner in many of the refuges wetland enhancement projects both in and outside the hunt unit, helping to create improved waterfowl hunting opportunities.

Getting veterans into the outdoors is so important, said Trujillo, who started fishing five years ago through a Fallen Outdoors/Community Military Appreciation Committee of SW Washington fishing event for veterans. Trujillo has since bought his own boat and takes other veterans fishing. After his successful day in the field at Ridgefield NWR, he hopes to do the same with waterfowl hunting.

The outdoors allows veterans to focus on something new, and clear our minds from daily life. This is a great opportunity to learn something new and make new friends. Plus, well eat what we harvest, said Trujillo, who served five years in the Army 101st Airborne, including a deployment in Iraq.

The hunt highlighted many of priorities laid out by Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke, including increasing hunting, fishing and recreational opportunities on public lands, while also focusing on a commitment to the recruitment, retention and reactivation of hunters to support the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has increased hunting, fishing and recreational opportunities on public lands these veterans served to protect, said Robyn Thorson, Pacific Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We cant think of a better way than to honor these veterans on Veterans Day than by introducing them to waterfowl hunting and this fantastic urban National Wildlife Refuge. We hope today is the first in a long tradition of waterfowl hunts that expand to include more veterans over the years.

The Lower Columbia Chapter of the Washington Waterfowl Association played an essential role in organizing the event, including coordinating guides and holding a special dinner for the veterans. Additional partners included Ridgefield American Legion Post 44, Fallen Outdoors, Community Military Appreciation Committee of SW Washington, Heroes Northwest, Cabelas, Gerber Knives, Stein Distributing, Larry Hoff, Rose Real Estate and Evergreen Home Loans.

Richard Hannan, retired Assistant Regional Director for the Services Pacific Region and member of the Washington Waterfowl Association, guided Trujillo during his hunt. Hannans discussions with the veteran brought back a flood of memories.

I choked up a little when Sal shot his first duck and (my Chesapeake Bay retriever) Daisy brought it back to him, Hannon said. It reminded me of taking my dad hunting and introducing him to the outdoors I love, and that he never had the chance to experience because of the demands of the uniform (as a 30-year Navy veteran) and family.

Sal mentioned more than once how sometimes he and many other vets go to some dark places in their heads as a result of their service to our nation. By going outdoors he and others are able to push those thoughts away and heal. I think we created some great memories. I know it did for me.