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Disabled But Still Deadly

A half-dozen men, wounded by war, found peace with rifles and bows in Alaska.

JUSTIN MENCHACA: The Green Beret

Justin Menchaca had earned the Army’s Green Beret, Airborne. He deployed from Fort Bragg to Pakistan, then to Afghanistan. He recalls little about the day his world changed. The machine gun bullet traversed his skull.

“My buddies saved my life,” said Menchaca. The words come slowly but with conviction.

            A helicopter had beat its way to the site in minutes. A Kandahar hospital kept death at bay. Menchaca had to again learn to eat, speak and walk. Naturally right-handed, he trained his left. Eight years after the injury, he retired for medical reasons. The worst, in medical terms, was over. But the path to a normal life would be long.

Green Beret soldier Justin Menchaca (right) shared his first Alaska hunt with his father Dominic.

            I shared a late-night ride with him and his father, Dominic, from the Fairbanks airport to our Alaska tent camp near Delta Junction.

“I’m not a hunter,” Dominic told me. “But hunting is a passion for Justin now. He’s taken every chance to be afield. This one takes the cake.”

             “Mostly, I’ve shot deer,” Justin said, as the city’s lights vanished behind spruce forest. “I didn’t hunt when I was young. I’ve never hunted moose.”

            Next morning, a leg brace straightened his stride. At the shooting bench, the borrowed Ruger looks as natural as if he’d grown up with it.

Justin is one of six hunters chosen from several dozen applicants to join Rick Barth and his crew near Delta Junction. Since 2012, Rick’s Purple Heart Hunting Program has hosted soldiers who’ve earned the Purple Heart for combat injuries that left them 100 percent disabled, according to the military.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game reserves permits exclusively for wounded veterans. This DM795 hunt is conducted in and around the 72,000-acre Fort Greeley missile base and lies within the 120,000-acre Delta Management Control Area in eastern Alaska.

Six licenses of 25 allocated annually to moose hunters in the DMCA go to the disabled veterans.

            For the past two years, two SCI chapters — SCI Alaska Chapter and SCI Northwest Chapter in Seattle, with help from donors like Cabela’s, have provided gear and funding in support of this hunt. The Purple Heart Hunting Program has also received help from the group Outdoors For Our Heroes, based in western Washington.

ORIGIN STORY

Purple Heart Hunting Program founder Rick Barth, now 59, grew up in Missouri and joined the Army in 1983. He worked for several years in Germany on the Kaiserslautern base where most of his job was animal damage control. He retired and then worked in Wyoming and Alaska for the National Park Service before landing at Fort Wainwright on the outskirts of Fairbanks.

            “I came to Fort Greeley in 2010 and found on its fragmented holdings too many moose – also too many fences that trapped moose,” said Barth.

Rick Barth founded the Purple Heart Hunting Program in 2010 when he was environmental chief at Alaska’s Fort Greeley.

He invited the first Purple Heart recipient to join him on a hunt. With help from Larry Martin, First Sergeant in the National Guard’s base detachment, the program grew. Martin became the first chief guide for the hunters.

The base commander saw the program as a way to control moose and comply with the Sikes Act, which requires the Department of Defense to actively manage natural resources on its properties if the work doesn’t interfere with the base mission. Barth and Martin housed and fed hunters on-base and brought them to moose. Then in 2020, they got a new commander. Just before moose season, he declared base facilities off-limit to hunters. With help from SCI chapters and OSOH, they scrambled to put up comfortable tents in a forest clearing nearby. It worked out well.

“All six of our hunters got moose,” said Barth.

            Time, planning and much volunteer effort improved moose camp for the 2021 season. With new tents and picnic tables, the use of fresh side-by-side ATVs and sumptuous meals cooked and catered by Whitney Morrison and her kitchen crew Mike and Jake, it boasted the amenities of a first-class lodge. Each hunter would have his own guide, and the use of off-trail vehicles to go where the moose lived. But the ambiance of a “bush hunt” would remain, a spruce-fueled fire licking high into short Alaskan nights. We would starve it only briefly, when the Aurora Borealis blazed overhead.

As our hunt approached, warm days promised to carry us through most of the week. The Alaska Range gleamed white with new snow under blue skies.

            My place here had been suggested by friends Alan and Jan Pearson, of the Northwest Chapter of SCI. Chapter President Cody Scriver, a veteran of the U.S. Marines, had invited me to record the hunt in words and images.

“You might want to help with a dead moose too,” he had added, as we dropped onto our cots the first night.

            By the next afternoon, the hunters had checked rifle zeros at a bench fronting an alley cut in the forest. Rick pulled me aside. “Why don’t you come with Sam and me tomorrow,” he said.

SAM SHOCKLEY: Homework in the Tent

An Ohio native, Sam Shockley had enlisted in the Army in 2007 and deployed to Iraq. Another three-year stint kept him there. In March 2013, he was leading his squad on a road-clearing mission. He stepped on a pressure plate, and 30 pounds of explosives blew him skyward.

“I came down in bad shape,” said Shockley.

His team had him in a chopper in 17 minutes, but there was no saving his legs. He spent two years in a military medical center. He said his first job was to “get off the meds.” Next was college. He graduated from Ohio State.

“What a blessing that was!” he said. “Injured or whole, hard work is your surest path to better times ahead.”

Sam Shockley (left) invited Barney, a Vietnam vet, on his moose hunt.

Sam applies that formula to his physical therapy, and to his studies. Now plowing through an MBA program at Washington State University, he also works fulltime for a packaging company. He pushes himself. Even in moose camp, he would allocate hours to homework in his tent.

            Sam had grown up hunting squirrels, rabbits and deer, so I wasn’t surprised that he centered his shots during our zero check. But killing a moose wouldn’t be so easy. Like three of the other hunters, he had brought a companion to share the hunt and lend an occasional hand. He’d met Barney, a Vietnam vet, on an upland bird shoot in eastern Washington. They were inseparable pals.

            A cold night brought still dawn skies with a thin skein of cloud. We beat the sun to hills fringing Fort Greeley. A young bull moose and two cows sifted from a foggy meadow. Any moose was legal game for our hunters. Other permit holders in the DMCA were limited to bulls with 50-inch antlers or a brow with at least four points.

“We’ll find a mature bull,” said Barth. “Lots of  ’em here.”

            As if on cue, the forest opened to our flank. We all saw the bull at once.

“That’s what you want!” Rick said. But Sam was alert to his surroundings. His scope field showed a tent on a distant slope beyond the clearing — a flyspeck on the table set before us. Still, to fire in that direction wouldn’t do.

            Rick bit his lip. But he knew another approach. Long minutes later, easing down a hill from the north, we spied the animal again. Rick managed to get Sam within 100 yards. A 180-grain softnose from Sam’s .300 staggered the moose. It struggled a few steps and paused. A second shot dropped it. The 55-inch antlers had broad, heavy palms and strong brow points.

“What a beautiful animal,” said Sam who was ecstatic.

            War wounds less visible than Sam’s and Justin’s, challenged some of the Purple Heart hunters.

DOUG SHREVE: Texas Hunter

Doug Shreve’s 1996 Army enlistment brought him from Oklahoma to Korea, Saudi Arabia to Iraq. It was there that the vehicle he was driving triggered an anti-tank mine. It exploded under his seat.

“Fortunately, I wasn’t seat-belted in,” said Shreve.

The thrust might have been fatal, had he been restrained.

“Ironically, two days earlier I’d been cited by an MP for not wearing a seatbelt,” he said.

Doug spent two weeks in hospital with brain injuries. Later, after a visit to Afghanistan, he retired from active service in the Army Reserves.

            Shreve’s first big-game trip as a veteran was a deer hunt in 2018. He then took his son on another deer hunt and then to Florida for alligators. He started waterfowling in 2020 and got his first Nebraska turkeys this year.”

Shreve said hunting’s main appeal is that “it brings me outdoors and puts meat on the table.”        Mounted game birds in Doug’s Texas home remind him of days afield. His Alaska hunt would likely hike his taxidermy bill. After killing a bull with his .300 Winchester, he’d have the opportunity to hunt waterfowl and sandhill cranes in a lay-down blind in cut barley. The add-on was donated by a Delta Junction farmer. Two cranes and a lesser Canada goose would fall to Doug’s 12-bore.

JASON MAURET: Bowhunter

A hurricane delayed Jason Mauret’s flight to moose country from his native Louisiana. Jason had joined the Army in 1999. In 2005, he deployed to Baghdad. One day, on a bomb disposal mission, a close friend spied a buried 155mm shell rigged for remote detonation.

“That ordnance has a 45-meter kill radius above ground,” said Mauret.

He was inches away, trying to defuse it, when it exploded.

Jason’s physician recommended archery as therapy for his injured hand. He slowly built-up strength and began bowhunting. A shotgun brought him a buck on a wounded-warrior hunt in Indiana. Then he volunteered to help with other veteran hunts. The man who suggested Jason take this trip was the stepfather of a friend who’d died in the bomb blast.

Jason brought his bow and his 15-year-old son.

            While they were cruising moose cover late on opening morning, Jason and his guide spotted a bull. It was too far away for a bow shot. But Jason approached slowly, side-stepping to improve the angle. He adjusted the sight pin of his Mathews on the way. The moose evidently didn’t perceive a threat and let Jason close in to 35 yards. Jason’s broadhead caught both lungs. The moose piled up within 100 yards.

SHANE LOWRY: ‘Being Here is a Treat’

A couple of hunters hailed from the Upper Midwest. Shane Lawry’s home in northern Minnesota isn’t unlike central Alaska in autumn. He’d come by way of Afghanistan: “Two tours. One would have been enough.” He’d joined the Army’s infantry in ’07.

“One day, five years later, on foot patrol, I walked too near a buried pressure cooker — that’s right, a pressure cooker, like you’d use for canning,” said Lawry. “But this one was full of ball bearings.”

Detonated remotely, it shredded Shane’s unit. He suffered compressed spinal disks and a brain injury.

He’d grown up hunting whitetails with family. Now, besides bringing his wife and three children into the deer woods, he said he gets to share the field with other veterans.

Shane Lawry (left) and his brother Dan hail from the Midwest.

“Killing game matters less than the relationships that bless my hunting trips,” he said. “Like the rest of the guys here, I’m on my first Alaska hunt. Getting a bull moose will be a thrill, whatever its size. Just being here is a treat.”

            The camp’s Stihl saw stayed warm throughout the week. Shane and his brother Dan, who’d come as a guest, tended to the woodpile. They also found moose right away. Shane’s 75-yard shot with a 200-grain Hornady ELD-X bullet from his Browning in .300 Winchester had much in common with a poke at a Minnesota whitetail.

JEREMY VOSS: ‘Truly Grateful’

Jeremy Voss was deployed in Iraq in 2007 when an anti-tank mine blew up under his vehicle’s drive axle.

“Three of the four soldiers inside went home with TMI, traumatic brain injury,” said Voss. “After a year in an Army hospital in Texas, I could have re-upped. But the damage to my left hand nixed any chance to re-join the infantry.”

Instead, Jeremy tackled an MBA program to complement his B.A. in history. He now works in Des Moines and gets into the field often to hunt.

“I grew up hunting turkeys in Iowa, but also with my grandfather for big game in Colorado,” he said. He bowhunts deer near home and has worked weekends guiding Gold Star widows on Texas hunts. His four-year-old twins now join him in Wyoming each year, where his wife helps promote the Cheyenne rodeo.

            “I’m not a gun guy,” Jeremy confessed. “And I don’t hunt for big antlers. But I much enjoy the outdoors and am truly grateful for this chance to hunt in Alaska — whether the moose cooperate or not.”

Early on, they’d cooperated only for his companions. Shortly after Sam had taken his bull, Justin had found one. A handloaded 300-grain AccuBond from his borrowed .375 Ruger felled the animal. The group would bag three more moose as Rick’s guides put binoculars and side-by-sides to work. Eventually only Jeremy had yet to see a mature bull. Offering no promises we’d bring better luck, Cody Scriver and I joined him, and guide Larry Martin as sunny days left us to a morning of dishwater clouds spitting drizzle. The hunting area is Larry’s backyard, and he was keen to show us both its expanse and its hidey holes. Intermittent rain put a shine on the tundra and willow leaves, tinged red and yellow, as the miles spooled out behind us. Threaded by the Alaska pipeline and spotted by small lakes, the DMCA comprises cliff and bog as well as meadow and forest. We saw caribou bulls, just starting to strip velvet. Alas, none of the more than 20 moose in our path had big antlers. Larry was sure a broad-beamed bull would show.

Jeremy and his moose.

            It did. We surprised it in jackstraw spruce. It left in a hurry, high-stepping, white antlers winking good-bye between fire-scarred boles.

            The sun’s long arc was kissing timber as we motored down a forest track, in a couple of side-by-sides, hurrying to check a meadow beyond hiking range. The trees gave way suddenly. Three moose loomed big and black at less than 70 yards. The bull’s wide, heavy palms dominated the opening.             “Now!” I screamed silently. But short steps to my flank, Jeremy held his shot. What I couldn’t see was the spruce directly between his Ruger and the bull’s forward ribs. Seconds crawled like minutes. This bull wouldn’t stand forever. Then I heard the crash of the .338 RCM split the stillness.

“Again!” I must have said that aloud.

Jeremy’s first 200-grain Hornady had landed well. His second brought the beast down. No better evening ever drew the curtain on a hunt.

            It would be my second moose to help skin and quarter. Given what these veterans had contributed to my hunting, and to our other precious freedoms, it seemed the least I could do.                       

To learn more about the Purple Heart Hunting Program, and other veteran hunts, contact aksafariclub.org/sci-alaska-chapter-warriors.

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