Outdoor Therapy: Veterans overcome disabilities through hunting

In October 2011, Jared Midgley was hunting at Bord Gulch Ranch northwest of Craig with an antelope buck in his crosshairs.

The U.S. Army veteran who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom had never been hunting before and had only acquired his hunter education card three weeks earlier.

“I was probably a little nervous,” Midgley said. “I didn’t think I would hit one right off the bat, but I did. I don’t even know how to describe it other than, ‘Wow.’”

Midgley and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Jesse Leech were selected to participate in the third annual Bord Gulch Ranch disabled veterans antelope hunt in Moffat County this year.

The program, which was the vision of Matt Lucas, supervisor of recreation therapy at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Grand Junction, provides veterans with an opportunity to manage their physical and psychological disabilities through hunting.

Lucas said the program began in 2006 with a deer hunt at the Lowery Ranch 10 miles north of Rifle. In the last three years, it has expanded to include an elk hunt on the Brennise and Sullivan ranches 20 miles south of Craig and the antelope hunt at Bord Gulch Ranch.

Since the program’s inception, Lucas has taken 45 servicemen and women hunting, each with some type of service-connected disability. But Lucas never thought his supervisors would approve a treatment program that used firearms.

“Getting the program off the ground really came down to two things: Safety and figuring out a way to accommodate our physically disabled vets,” Lucas said.

To help, Lucas enlisted the assistance of Mike Swaro, district wildlife manager with the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife, who was instrumental in helping the VA draft safety guidelines (veterans are not allowed to scout or walk the field with a loaded rifle and may only chamber a round when ready to fire). Swaro also helped Lucas apply for special use licenses to accommodate veterans with a variety of physical disabilities.

“I’m always looking for a new challenge, and there is absolutely no one that I won’t take hunting,” Lucas said. “In the past, we have secured licenses to allow our veterans confined to a wheelchair to hunt from the window of a vehicle, which is illegal for anyone else to do.”

Lucas was even successful in acquiring a special use license last year to take a blind veteran deer hunting. In that case, the Division of Wildlife allowed the veteran to hunt with a laser sight.

“We went scouting out at Lowery and found a few nice bucks,” Lucas said. “Our guide helped the vet aim by telling him up, down, left or right, and he was successful in harvesting that deer.”

Although the program was initially designed to accommodate veterans with physical disabilities, Lucas said he receives most of his hunting requests from those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

“A lot of veterans in the program suffer from PTSD,” Lucas said. “They want to know if they have what it takes to go out in the field and kill an animal.”

As understandable as that may be, Lucas said he tries to alter their thinking before the hunt.

“Hunting is not about killing,” Lucas said. “It’s about enjoying friends, being in the outdoors, harvesting an animal and providing food for your family.”

Lucas said during the last five years he has witnessed the therapeutic benefits of hunting, whether it’s taking physically disabled veterans places they never thought they would see again or watching difficult wartime memories fade, if only temporarily.

“As long as I’m here and my bosses will support it I’ll continue to run the hunting program because I’ve seen what it has done to these veterans’ lives,” Lucas said. “It’s hard to put it into words, but you see it when you’re there.

“Take Jared for example. I could tell he was nervous, but the smile on his face after he harvested that antelope tells the whole story. That’s why I do this.”

But Lucas is quick to point out that none of this would be possible without contributions from agencies and businesses.

This year’s disabled veterans antelope hunt was sponsored by the Yampa Valley Chapter of Safari Club International, Hampton Inn & Suites, AGP Processing, Mountain Man Taxidermy and Bord Gulch Ranch owner Tom Gilliland.

Gilliland provided the landowner vouchers and guide service for the hunt, which he said he could have easily cost $1,000 a piece for another pair of hunters.

“We’re not interested in that part of it,” Gilliland said. “We’re just interested in those young men enjoying themselves. We’re honored to be involved and we intend to keep doing it every year we can. We get a real kick out of it.”

As did Midgley.

“The guys in Craig didn’t stop giving from the time we got there until the time we left,” Midgley said. “I’ve never been treated so well in my life.”