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Sfc. Luke Hortenstine of Ramsey hugs Illinois Conservation Police Officer Matt Graden at the farewell banquet following a week-long hunting trip for wounded veterans recovering from their injuries. Photo by Chris Young.

Wounded vets heal while they hunt

November 17, 2013 at 09:45 PM

The State Journal-Register

The 2013 Sugar Grove Nature Center & HOOAH Deer Hunt for Heroes ended with an emotional send-off Sunday night for six wounded veterans who came to Illinois to hunt, relax and take a break from the hard work of recovery.

Illinois Department of Natural Resources Conservation Police Officer Matt Graden and his hunting partner Tom Huffington worked together to bring the soldiers to Illinois from Fort Knox and Fort Campbell in Kentucky, where HOOAH (Healing Outside of a Hospital) is based.

The organization tries to get the soldiers away from the environment of hospitals and physical therapy.

“It is a very small token of gratitude,” Graden said. “It is the least we can do. These guys were willing to go war and fight for us and possibly make the ultimate sacrifice to protect our way of life.

“Four or five days in deer camp is not even on the scale,” he said. “It is just our way of saying thanks.”

The veterans participated in a one-day pheasant and quail hunt before spending three days hunting deer. Hunts took place in Logan and McLean counties.

Soldiers were outfitted with gear and paired with volunteers who helped facilitate the hunts.

“The first day the guys got here, they were typical soldiers: closed off, protected,” said volunteer guide Joe Gaither of Stanford. “By the end of the second day they just opened up. It was amazing.

“You just could sit and listen to them talk and you just felt for them,” he said. “I can’t explain the emotions you went through. The emotions in the stories brought out the emotions in me.”

“We just had deer camp and did what we normally would do,” Graden said. “We just added a few new people on board. It was very simple, very enjoyable.”

From left to right: HOOAH participants Luke Hortenstine, Matt Taylor, Justin Carter, Shawn Pedigo, Ryan Myers, and Ken Fitzner. Photo courtesy of Matt Graden.

‘This program saved their life’

Sgt. Ken Fitzner has TBI (traumatic brain injury), and post-traumatic stress disorder. He also had surgery on his shoulder, neck and back.

“I had a phenomenal time,” Fitzner said. “We hung out every night. We hung around the fire and just talked.”

He also killed two deer during his twice-daily hunts.

“The rest, relaxation, forgetting about the military, forgetting about all my injuries, just clearing my head and not having a care in the world really,”

Kitzner said when asked what he enjoyed about the week. “It was just really, really awesome.”

Sgt. Justin Carter, who is stationed at Fort Campbell, said he wasn’t sure what to expect.

“Words can’t describe how my week went,” he said. “I came up here, and honestly I don’t know what my expectations were. Everybody that was involved, they were just amazing people. I honestly cannot wait to get back.”

Staff Sgt. Matthew Taylor coordinates the HOOAH program, calling it “the greatest job in the Army.

“You guys helped us relax. You let us make new friends. You got us mentally back in order,” Taylor told the audience at the banquet. “And you probably saved a few soldiers’ lives here on top of it all.”

Taylor brought plaques of appreciation for Graden and Huffington.

“I call these survivor plaques,” Taylor said. “The soldiers who come in my office who say that this program saved their life, I ask them sign these.

“I’ve got a few of these remaining in the office. As you can see, one of these has in excess of 20 names on it. These are from the soldiers this year alone, that people like you have helped save.”

Taylor said the support from people outside the military who put on events like this is important in the ongoing process of recovery — both physically and emotionally.

“These guys are still sticking around,” he said. “These guys are playing with their kids, and they might not be here without you guys.”

While Graden said the event was as simple as inviting some new friends to deer camp, Taylor said there was much more involved.

It took more than 147 e-mails, 100 phone calls and four visits from Huffington to nail down all the details and logistics, he said.

Planning already has begun for the 2014 hunt, and fundraising will start soon, Graden said.

For more information, contact .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Chris Young can be reached at 341-8487 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow him at

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