Hunting with Heroes provides vets special festivities
HURRAY FOR HEROES: Members of Klickitat School’s Suzuki violin group perform for special guests outside Canyon Market in downtown Klickitat on Friday. The assembled audience included members of the community and veterans who were taking part in the Hunting with Heroes program over the weekend.
Birds and fish were at a distinct disadvantage last weekend as the Klickitat River canyon was crowded with a special group of eager outdoorsmen and women. The occasion was the Hunting with Heroes program, three-days of camaraderie and festivities for veterans built around the outdoor experience of hunting and fishing in an idyllic setting.
The event was kicked off on Friday with a heroes’ welcome to Klickitat. Fifty veterans who were selected from a list of men and women nominated for the program, were given a patriotic welcome by the people of Klickitat, including Girl Scouts and Klickitat School musicians. The tribute was just the beginning of three days of hunting, fishing, food and music in Klickitat and along the river and in the uplands along Horseshoe Bend Road. It was the second time Klickitat had the honor of hosting the program which began in 2011 at the initial site in Maupin.
Hunting with Heroes came from an idea that was passed by Scott Sneer, owner of Blaze Outdoor Adventures and CEO of Alpha Ecological pest control. According to Sneer, one of his corporate clients on a fishing expedition suggested that Sneer should take a group of veterans on one of those hunting or fishing guided outings. Sneer says the suggestion was to take half a dozen veterans out, but “I don’t do anything in a small way.” It started the wheels rolling in the mind of just the right man to put into motion a major event.
Sneer thought big. Fifty veterans would be better, representing all branches, including men and women from different eras. And a fishing expedition wasn’t enough, there needed to be a welcoming and community appreciation aspect of the event. Sneer’s infectious enthusiasm got buy-in from his employees and several of the corporations with which he had business connections.
The first event had a huge impact on Sneer. The town of Maupin closed down the main drag and gave the veterans a heroes’ welcome. It touched one Viet Nam veteran who told Sneer that he came back from Viet Nam in 1969 and this was the first time he was welcomed home. It is an emotional thing for Sneer to talk about and it convinced him he was onto something. “This is my legacy,” he says. Sneer, who is from a family with a history of military service, was even motivated to write a song, called “We Will Not Forget,” that was performed at the Night of the Patriot concert, Sunday evening at the Pearson Air Museum, near Vancouver. Sneer has created the Home with Heroes Foundation which helps fund continuation of the Hunting with Heroes program and promotes the idea of communities welcoming home veterans.
One of the veterans who visited the county this weekend is Jerry Gardner. Gardner is originally from Oklahoma, but has been living in Washington and pursuing a degree in psychology. Gardner was nominated for the program by Alpha Ecological, where he has worked since March of this year.
Gardner was typical of the type of person selected for the program. He is a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan wars and he isn’t an avid hunter or fisherman. He says he did both as a boy growing up in Oklahoma, but hadn’t continued it since being discharged from the Navy. Gardner was married back in Oklahoma, working on an associate degree when his younger brother, who was also married, decided he would join the Navy. Gardner says he always felt responsible for his brother, so he said he would join, too. Then their wives said, “We are also joining.” So, all four joined the Navy. Gardner became a member of Navy Seal Team 5. His brother still serves in the Navy, but sadly, both marriages were casualties of the decision for all to join.
While serving, Gardner was injured by an improvised exploding device (IED) and put on the sidelines with a head injury that impacted the vision in one eye. Doing desk duty isn’t what he had in mind, so in 2004 he got out of the Navy. Gardner soon found that employers didn’t appreciate the skills that a Navy Seal had, things like commitment, being a team player, innovation, strong work ethic and a can-do attitude. “They just saw me as a killer,” says Gardner. “They didn’t make the effort to see me as a person with skills,” says Gardner, who was looking for a government job. He made his way working on construction jobs while completing a degree in psychology through Washington State University’s Vancouver campus.
Last March, Gardner attended a Veterans’ Administration sponsored job fair in Portland. He says he made the rounds through the usual booths of employers looking for laborers and saw the Alpha Ecology booth on his way out. He stopped to visit and learned about their involvement in a kids’ education program (Alpha Ecological sponsors a science education program called Fraboom, On-line Children’s Museum, intended for use by teachers in classrooms) and the Hunting with Heroes program. He decided to apply and was hired the next day.
Gardner, who says he has not met with his former Seal comrades for the past seven years, mainly because the discussion brings up memories they would rather not relive, was struck by the camaraderie of last weekend’s event. He enjoyed sharing in old stories and learning of the recent accomplishments of his newly met friends in the camp setting in Klickitat.
One of his co-workers at Alpha Ecological, Jake Carse is also a volunteer helping with the program. Gardner, who had never before tried fly-fishing, learned the skill on the Klickitat River with Carse as his instructor. He had the usual beginner experiences of hooking trees and body, but for a first timer, it didn’t take Gardner long before he had the experience of a lifetime, hooking salmon in the Klickitat River. On Sunday he was headed for the uplands for pheasant hunting at the Chiles Horseshoe Bend Ranch. But, Saturday was a time for visiting and enjoying food and music at the event headquarters in the parking lot of Canyon Market.
Gardner, who received his diploma this summer, says he is enrolling in the master’s degree program, determined to council returning veterans. As for the impact of the program, Gardner says he is going right out to buy a fly rod. It was also obvious that his experience was giving him second thoughts about a long-overdue reunion with old Seal friends.
Sneer wants to see communities reach out to welcome home veterans and doesn’t limit it to combat veterans. Regardless of where and when people served their country, Sneer believes communities should show their appreciation. The public can play a role in Hunting with Heroes by giving to the Home with Heroes Foundation or downloading Sneer’s song, which will generate a one-dollar donation for each download. A link to the song is on the homewithheroes.com web page. Nominations can also be made to have makeover for a veteran’s home, a project with Home Depot.
Tracy Zoller, Klickitat River Guides
BIG FISH: Even first time fishermen were successful in catching salmon on the Klickitat River. Tracy Zoller, of adventurefishing.net out of Klickitat coordinated the fishing adventure.
Hunting with Heroes will return to Klickitat next year, says Carl Coolidge, owner of Canyon Market. Coolidge was the main contact for the program when they first looked at Klickitat as a potential site. A host of community and area people were also instrumental in making the program a success. The Klickitat County Sheriff’s Office led the parade into town and provided security and the local volunteer fire department helped with logistics. Some other key players were Project Patch who provided some housing and access to property, Matt Chiles who provided experience learning to shoot shotguns on clay targets, then live pheasants and Tracy Zoller who led the fishing experience. It was a trip on the Klickitat River, says Sneer, filming a fishing segment with Zoller, owner of Klickitat River Guides, for Hawg Quest that got Sneer thinking about moving the event to Klickitat.
It is a marriage that Coolidge thinks will benefit Klickitat as much as it does their guests. “Partnering with people like this is what we need to do to revitalize the community,” says Coolidge. Revitalization is just the word that Sneer uses when he thinks of Klickitat, for he too has another project in mind and if he has his way, it is certain to provide some economic impact for the town of Klickitat. It is in the early discussion stages at this time, but Sneer hopes to bring a fishing related enterprise to Klickitat if things fall in place.