The words “real” and “reality” are abused these days. What’s real about a bachelor sorting through a houseful of fashion models? What’s real about a clique of spoiled 20-somethings who party 24/7 and show no indication of ever wanting to grow up? In all the years North American Hunter has produced television, we tried to “keep it real.” Our goal was always to tag an animal representative of the areas we hunted; sometimes we got lucky and took a trophy-class animal. That’s real to the hunting most of us do. Yet, the Armed Forces Entertainment (AFE) and Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) Outdoor Legends Tour in Afghanistan drove home stark, true meanings of real.
On our first day in Kabul, Brenda Valentine, Jim Shockey, Marine Corps Lt. Col. (ret.) Lew Deal and I flew in a Blackhawk helicopter from our home base at Camp Phoenix to the New Kabul Compound (NKC). We spent a great morning meeting American, Canadian and other servicemen and women. We ate with them in the DFAC (dining facility) and enjoyed the street bazaar they hold each week “inside the wire” as a form of community outreach.
Brenda Valentine brought along flags from her local American Legion Post, which we flew and
photographed at various camps to help them raise funds for their efforts.
After lunch, we visited Camp Eggers which is located a short distance from NKC. As the crow flies, it’s less than a mile. Eggers is a small, older base with no LZ (landing zone), so transport between the camps was by vehicle. During the entire tour, this was the only time we were permitted outside the wire on the ground.
All of us donned body armor and helmets with strict orders to keep them on. We went in two vehicles—an armored Suburban and an armored Land Cruiser. In each vehicle there was a professional driver and a heavily armed guard along with our armed escorts for the day. Leaning up against the console in each truck was a 240 B machine gun locked and loaded. (Click here to see a tense ground transport through the streets of Afghanistan.)
Planning and briefing for this short trip was extensive. During the drive radio chatter between the two vehicles was constant. At one point our Suburban clipped the mirror on a delivery truck because it crept into our lane and we could not let the convoy be separated. The amount of destruction, checkpoints, guns and razor wire we saw in the short drive left no doubt where we were.
The Tour group is happy, but there’s always underlying stress of where we are.
This trip of less than 10 minutes each way was the first of many times on the Tour the meaning of “real” snapped into focus and proved to me why we were there. The soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines deployed to Afghanistan live this reality everyday. Our Tour, on behalf of North America’s outdoorspeople, brought the troops a little bit of “home” in a place that couldn’t be more different from home. The chance for them to tell us their hunting stories, show us photos of past successes and scouting cam shots of the bucks they plan to hunt, were a break from the stress and grind of the real world they endure every hour of their deployment.
The Outdoor Legends Tour
The AFE/PVA Outdoor Legends Tour was the brainchild of Mossy Oak’s Ronnie “Cuz” Strickland and George Thornton, CEO of the National Wild Turkey Federation. Both of their enterprises are deeply involved in providing outdoor opportunities for returning veterans, but they wanted to do more for servicemen and women on deployment—to let these special people know the outdoorspeople back home deeply appreciate them.
They contacted retired Marine Corps Cobra pilot Lew Deal who runs the PVA Outdoor Recreation Heritage (ORH) Fund from his office in D.C. Both collaborated with Deal on the ORH program and recognized he knew how to navigate the Pentagon channels to turn their idea into reality.
Fast forward to the 2012 SHOT Show in Las Vegas. A press conference announced the Outdoor Legends Tour with nine outdoor celebrities slated to make the trip. The group included Brenda Valentine, Jim Shockey, Michael Waddell, Jim Zumbo, Ryan Klesko, Jerry Martin, Cuz Strickland, George Thornton and me. Tour escorts would be Deal and USMC Maj. Gen. (ret.) Randy West.
The Tour was slated for late February into early March. We would all travel to Germany together to visit Landstuhl Regional Medical Center near the Ramstein Air Base where wounded troops are brought for treatment. Then we would break into two groups to tour different U.S. military installations across Southwest Asia.
Seventy-two hours before our departure an inkling of Afghanistan reality set in. Things heated up due to the Quran burnings. The portion of the trip for those of us scheduled to go there was postponed. The group including Waddell, Zumbo, Klesko, Martin, Thornton and West made their tour through Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
After months of anxious waiting, word came our portion of the Tour could be rescheduled. Unfortunately, a health situation developed in Strickland’s family that made the trip impossible for him. So the group was Valentine, Shockey, Deal and me.
Itinerary Of Reality
The AFE/PVA Outdoor Legends Tour 2 team met at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany. We spent the night at a hotel not far from the Landstuhl Hospital. The first full day we met and greeted troops at the USO Warrior Center on the campus and in the hospital wards. Thankfully, the load of patients with battlefield injuries was light, but the patients we met brought home another reality of deployment—troops must deal with all of the same issues we do back home.
We met patients there for kidney stones, staph infection, severe cuts, fractures, blown knees and ankles, and illnesses. All are issues of real, day-to-day life, but on top of all that, servicemen and women on deployment deal with the stress and dangers of a warzone. Yet, the humbling universal desire of those we met was to get back to their teams. No matter what branch of service or what their responsibilities, all felt being in the hospital was letting their fellow soldiers down.
The Outdoor Legends Tour began by visiting troops at the USO Warrior Center on the campus
of the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
The next day we flew from Frankfurt to Istanbul, Turkey and on to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan where we arrived at Manas Air Base in the wee hours of the morning. We went straight to a briefing about the base and our schedule, then, thankfully, to our housing for a few hours of sleep. After the rest, the first order of business was getting our body armor and helmets, along with instructions on how to use the potentially life-saving gear. It was another moment foretelling the reality of where we were going.
We used the rest of the day to tour Manas and meet troops. Manas in a primary transit point for troops going to and returning from what they call “downrange.” (That term alone carries a great deal of reality with it.) We were briefed in the armory and in the EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) unit. Shockey tried on the bomb disposal suit, and I attempted to manipulate the radio-controlled robots—both to the amusement of the airmen. Talk about a group whose responsibilities are real!
Then we hung out at the DFAC and Pete’s Place, the main watering hole, and shared stories with the hunters and fishermen. (Click here to see videos of troops sharing their hunting stories.) Valentine helped one airman from Florida impress his girlfriend back home. He was admiring Brenda’s earrings made from shotshell brass, so she took them out and gave them to him to pass along to her. They might have been an engagement present—we haven’t heard for sure yet.
We swapped hunting stories and let the troops know how much we want them back in the woods
and on the waters with us when they get home.
The next day, we flew on a jam-packed C-17 from Manas to Bragram Air Base. With a layover of several hours, we grabbed a bite to eat and heard stories of the frequent rocket attacks on the base from our AFE escort. He even showed us pictures of an unexploded rocket lodged in the trunk of a tree right outside his office window. Reality was growing by the minute.
We climbed aboard a C-130 and flew to the tiny NATO camp at KIA (Kabul International Airport) where we overnighted. While technically inside the wire, this largely transient camp was the most unsettling place we stayed. It was very dark and the complex of tents contained an abundance of bunkers to which we were told to quickly learn our way by memory.
The next morning, we boarded a helicopter at KIA and flew to Camp Phoenix, the largest in the group known as the Kabul Cluster. This was to be our home base downrange, so we stowed gear in our quarters, stretched our legs and tried to adjust to the crossing of many time zones.
The next morning, we boarded military Blackhawk helicopters to go visit NKC and Eggers. (Click here to see video from a helicopter flight over Afghanistan.) The following day was Camp Black Horse, and an evening meet-and-greet back at Phoenix. At Black Horse I ran into Marines from “back home” in Minnesota and South Dakota—hardcore waterfowl hunters. We made plans for fall and next spring! At Camp Phoenix we were able to spend a good bit of time with the QRF (Quick Response Force) team who were happy to show us their weapons and vehicles, and tell us about their responsibilities. They are a bunch of young guys, mostly from Texas, who handle themselves with poise and confidence—even enthusiasm. And best of all, nearly all were avid hunters with stories to share.
That evening’s gathering was the best opportunity of the trip to really spend time and hear their stories and hopes for the future. For me, it cemented the nearly universal message we heard: These troops want to come home and go hunting and fishing. But even more, they want to come home and go outdoors with their families. They want to buy their kids’ first bows and teach them to shoot and hunt. They want one more hunting trip with Dad. They want to return favors to those who introduced them to the outdoors. Those are their real dreams of coming home.
The next day, we flew to visit Camp Julien and Camp Morehead. Though a small camp, Julien is impressive for its location. It sits inside the boundaries of an ANA (Afghan National Army) base. On that base are palaces built in the early 1900s for the then king and queen. We were allowed onto the ANA base to hike up the trail to view the shot-up queen’s palace. However, prior to the walk, we were warned the trail would take us close to the perimeter fence of the ANA camp. If the children in the village below saw us, chances were they’d run up the hill to beg for candy and coins. We were told to back well away from the fence and let our escorts deal with the children.
When we said we didn’t mind, we were told that wasn’t the point. The concern was the “bad guys” could booby trap a child and detonate an explosive when they saw us in close proximity. That was the most chilling, gut-wrenching, real moment of the trip.
Each camp has its own specific missions. Camp Morehead is the Special Forces Camp to train ANA Commandos. It’s a large camp in acreage with an incredible history of use by Russians, Taliban and now the U.S. and ANA. They also have a terrific shooting range where they had a special “save the best for last” treat prepared for us. We concluded our trip by shooting a variety of the weapons that U.S. troops rely on in their daily reality. (Click here to see thrilling video clips from the shooting range.) Under the instruction of Special Forces pros, we shot Beretta 92 9mm, M-4 in 5.65, M-240 in 7.62, M-2 (MAW Deuce) 50-cal. mounted to an MATV, AK-47, M-249 SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon) and M-72 LAW (Light Anti-Armor Weapon) Rockets. Between this once-in-a-lifetime range session or flying in Blackhawk helicopters in blackout with the doors open, I’m not sure which was the most exciting part of the Tour.
The LAW Rockets we got to shoot at Camp Morehead were amazingly accurate and easy to fire.
The next morning began with a helicopter ride from Phoenix to KIA, then a C-130 from there to Manas. We spent a short night in transient quarters, then awoke at 2:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning to begin travel home. I arrived at my house at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday evening, though I counted up something like 38 hours since I’d crawled out of bed on the same calendar day … another strange reality.
My New Reality
With some time to absorb all we saw and heard, I know this opportunity was one of the most meaningful things I’ve done in my life … or will ever have the chance to do. We were invited to give a little bit of fun and home to the troops. From the smiles, handshakes and even hugs, I know we were successful. But so much more than what we were able to give we received in return.
For me it was a greater appreciation of what fantastic people we have in the service of America. These are smart, hardworking, thoughtful, polite, respectful, friendly, courageous, sacrificing people who give up immeasurable security and their lives to serve our country. I sleep better having met firsthand the people protecting our freedoms. A day will never go by during the rest of my life when I don’t feel some guilt about enjoying my day-to-day reality back here at home.
That should lead us all to seek ways to thank these men and women for their service. In the outdoor world, we need to do all we can to welcome veterans and their families into the woods and onto the waters. Thankfully, there’s a whole range of ways to make it happen.
The simplest is easy as an invitation. If you own or lease land, invite a local returning vet and his/her kids to enjoy it. It doesn’t matter if it’s just to shoot a few squirrels or manage does. They just need a place to hunt, rejuvenate, and get reacquainted in the good ol’ outdoors.
Dozens of organizations like the PVA Outdoor Recreation Heritage Fund exist where you can make direct contributions of time and/or money. Many focus on wounded warriors, but more are now offering opportunities to all returning veterans and their families. Lew Deal is also working with a group, Hope for the Warriors, which makes family opportunities its focus.
You can support the Hope for the Warriors Outdoors Adventure Program through membership in the National Wild Turkey Federation. And starting this fall, a portion of the sales of Mossy Oak THUG (Today’s Hunters United for Good) gear sold at Wal-Mart stores will be donated to the PVA Outdoor Recreation Heritage Fund.
Lastly, there’s the simplest and easiest of all ways to honor our troops: When you’re at the airport or the local café and see someone in uniform, just step forward, shake his/her hand and say, “Thank you for your service.”
Much as I can, I’m going to try to make these things my own new reality.
The smiles, handshakes and hugs we received affirmed that our mission was accomplished.