As Seen in the Sep-Oct Shooting Sportsman Magazine:
“Snowbirds and No Words”
I sat up in my layout blind in an Arkansas mud field, amidst a thousand snow goose decoys. The CEO of G&H Decoys from Henrietta Oklahoma sat up in the blind next to me and offered me a cigar. Ray had driven in the night before and had been asleep in his blind snoring loudly 5 minutes before the legal shooting light. Wide awake now he contentedly puffed on a victory cigar.
Ray and I found ourselves in Arkansas as part of a Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Armed Forces Initiative event, a nonprofit organization focused on getting the military community involved in the conservation conversation. G&H decoys had donated the opportunity to take a mix of 12 active-duty soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and veterans on a snow goose hunt to teach them about waterfowl hunting, the spring conservation order, and with a bit of luck ignite a passion for waterfowl hunting that would last a lifetime.
We parked the trucks next to an old grain silo earlier that morning, half a mile from where we started setting decoys. The participants unloaded the trailer of G&H decoys and staked out the field 200 yards in every direction. After reviewing the decoy formation and the blind camouflage the group settled in thirty minutes before shooting light. Ray snored loudly in his layout blind, his breath creating columns of steam in the night air. Soon the Marine on my left was snoring too, and down the line, the sounds of sleep drifted over the decoys.
Soon the first flock started to cackle as family groups of 10-20 birds started to lift off the shallow lake a mile north of us. “Birds in the Air” I hissed to my left and right. The command carried down the line and within a minute all eyes scanned the sky searching for the small clouds of white forming on the horizon.
The geese started coming in just as they had during our scouting trip the day before. We let one goose land, then another pair. Within seconds ten geese were pecking around in the decoys. The anticipation of the new hunters seeped through the blinds to form a palpable sense of hunger. The hunger for success felt after a 2:30 a.m. wakeup, stumbling from their sleeping bag, slamming a coffee and a breakfast burrito, followed by slogging through 6 in of Arkansas mud to put out a thousand decoys.
I watched a flock of a hundred geese drift closer. The wind at our back let the geese glide from their roost with hardly a wingbeat until they were on top of us. A beautiful blue phase goose landed only yards from Ray's feet right on top of the new prototype decoy he was testing. The signal to take 'em ignited the fuse to an explosion of action. Blind doors flew open and guns rose up leaving the air caked with smoke and feathers. “No time to pick them up. Reload and tuck in!”
Another flock of fifty geese hovered in a thin white line on the horizon on a bead line toward the decoys. Thirty seconds later another two hundred and fifty birds hovered over the decoys. Nervous whispers ran down the line, “Safety check” and “Stay low here they come.” interspersed with boyish giggles and the occasional “Oh f*ck their right there.”
The boys shot 122 birds in 79 minutes. In between flights, we sent runners out with the dog to grab downed birds and stuff them in blinds. Boxes of shells passed between blinds without question as folks ran dry on ammo. Fingers and knuckles showed the blood of cuts and scrapes as the rushed re-loading in the coffin blinds betrayed the participant's inexperience as hunters.
When the flocks started to dissipate, and we exhausted our ammunition we conducted a thorough search for all down birds. Twelve grown men and a lab splashing around the mud chasing birds and giggling like schoolchildren is a hell of a sight.
Ray handed me a cigar, lit it for me and we sat there in the moment, exhausted. The participants slipped and slid in the mud, some holding geese high, others snapping selfies, comparing Ross geese, Snow geese, Blues, and immatures. Ray reached over and put his hand on my shoulder, there wasn’t anything that needed to be said or that could be said. We did our jobs.
The Armed Forces Initiative of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers hosts a hundred of these events annually in forty-six states and three Canadian provinces for thousands of veterans, active duty, reservists, and national guardsmen. Applicants from all over the United States sign up online to attend. These events are not at 5-star lodges with a catered menu and bird pluckers standing by with a glass of whiskey at the end of the day. Events are run by veteran volunteers who have seen the positive effects of the outdoors and time spent hunting and fishing on their own lives and strive to give that experience to others. We have three objectives for every event:
- Replicability, our focus is on teaching all the skills needed for participants to recreate the experiences we show them again the next weekend or next season without dependence on any other organization.
- a Tribe, the feelings of camaraderie felt on active duty are the first thing many veterans lose upon exiting the military. We create a community of folks with similar life experiences and a shared passion for wildlife and the outdoors.
- Conservation, we are looking for a moment where time stands still, the smell of the mud and the spoiled grain mix in the air with spent gunpowder and feathers. A moment where everything else fades into the background of life. If BHA does its job right, 2000 members of the military community should have this experience a year. When we combine that experience with a knowledge of standard conservation practices and instruction on how to interact with the conservation community at a town hall meeting, a DNR presentation, or even in a testimonial to Congress we make a new conservationist with a fierce passion for the natural resources that make the United States unique in the world.
It’s not a secret that there’s a major issue with suicide in the military community. We’ve lost more people to suicide than we have in combat in the last 20 years. That’s part of why BHA puts on events like this, and why Marine Veteran Ray Penny spends his company's money to support the Armed Forces Initiative. We have all lost people who would still be here if we had known then what we know now. The fact is that most of these guys are walking around every day with this incredible sadness, call it PTSD, depression, or survivors’ guilt, it has hundreds of names. If through hunting and conservation, we can take that weight off, for one day, one hour, or even only one moment, we must do it. It’s not about the 122 birds, it’s not about the bands or the taxidermy, it's about the camaraderie, the group, and the struggle. It’s about giving these people a new mission. That mission is conservation.