PEORIA — They hunt deer and pheasant and fish all day in lakes and fields around central and southern Illinois, and gather at a campfire at an isolated cabin.
HOOAH Deer Hunt for Heroes is about healing through hunting for veterans who are disabled or have had difficulties adjusting to life after service.
"There's hundreds and hundreds of people who care about these guys," said Tom Huffington, a State Farm worker who lives in McLean and is co-founder of the 501(c)3 HOOAH organization. "We cry like a bunch of school kids dumped at prom when we see how happy this makes these guys, how much it helps them."
They will be coming to Pekin in early November.
"It's kind of our Super Bowl of the year," Huffington said. "We'll have veterans with us at Lick Creek Game Preserve in Pekin, and there will be a pheasant shoot and a hunt, and the (Illinois Department of Natural Resources) is setting up trap and skeet shooting, too. Then we'll do our annual banquet in Bloomington (Nov. 10)."
The veterans come in all sizes and shapes, male and female, with a range of deployment history, from Vietnam to Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan. Marines, Army, Navy, Air Force, all have been on trips with the organization. Some have come recommended from transitional units at military bases Fort Knox and Fort Campbell.
Mostly, they apply from all over the country, many sent HOOAH's way by mothers, wives, children of veterans. Huffington, who co-founded HOOAH with veteran Matt Graden, says the list of states yet to produce a visitor to the program has grown short.
Typically, HOOAH chooses 10 veterans for a trip, from more than 100 applicants each time.
They arrive in various conditions. Some are amputees. Some are paraplegics. Some have nerve damage. Others suffer PTSD.
"It doesn't cost them a dime," said HOOAH board member Tom Gaither, 56, who served as a Marine. "We pay for everything, airfare, gas money to get them here, food and lodging, everything. We scraped dimes together and spent it from our own pockets when we first began this program in 2013.
"And there are no salaries paid. Never have been. Never will be. Everything goes to these veterans."
Down in the Springfield area, veterans begin their hunt with a trip to outdoors superstore Scheels. They are dressed head to toe, provided gear.
Local police and fire departments line up and form an honor tunnel for the veterans to move through.
"It's always an incredible moment," Huffington said. "The veterans say, 'This is all for me?' "
"We had a full-bird colonel come in for a multi-day trip once, and after fishing for a few hours he said he had to leave," Huffington said. "I told him I could have booked him for a different event when he'd have more time. But he looked at me and said, 'I've had to make hard decisions, seen guys in battle and what they go through. It's not about the money, I can buy a trip. But money can't buy the healing I just watched.' "
HOOAH, a military battle cry, of course, also represents Healing Outside Of A Hospital.
The group has a 20-by-30 foot cabin in Funks Grove, outside Bloomington, which overlooks hunting grounds and a creek.
They fish, hunt and spend time at campfires. You can find them online at www.hooahdeerhuntforheroes.com.
Each veteran has a guide, and they are provided equipment.
In fact, there are specialized wheelchairs for hunting — they look like they have tank treads instead of wheels. And there are specially-made lifts that can transfer a veteran from a wheelchair into a 20-foot high hunting stand. There are even fishing poles that can assist the user by reeling in a catch with the push of a button.
"There's something about being outside that brings peace to these guys," Huffington said. "The suicide rate for veterans is 22 per day, nationally. Twenty-two. We haven't lost anyone from our program.
"Some of them come back later and volunteer as mentors. Some of these guys, you can't unsee the things they've seen. But we never ask them about it. Usually, they open up on their own and find someone on the trip to relate to."
SGT. LUKE HORTENSTINE
Huffington said the very first hunting trip put on by HOOAH included six veterans, including Army Sgt. Luke Hortenstine, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I lost some faith at one point in my life," Huffington said. "Luke brought me back. He taught me. I watched him battle terminal cancer until he died (in 2015) at age 35.
"We met on that trip, and he became my best friend. Our sons are friends now. Luke helped inspire what we're doing today. He never backed down from the hand he was dealt."
Family is important in the program. HOOAH will be taking a Gold Star family camping in two weeks. There are couples outings, too, designed to help spouses connect and share the healing experience.
HOOAH takes out about 60 veterans for events every year, and the program has welcomed about 700 since its inception.
"We probably have about 40 disabled veterans who volunteer to assist with our events," Gaither said. "HOOAH keep growing, there's 300-400 people around us now who support in some way."
Winchester donates ammunition. UPS discounts shipping of deer meat to each veteran, which is processed from the veterans hunt.
But there is a more important byproduct.
"We're trying to make sure they leave here with people they can lean on," Huffington said. "And we stay in touch with them, make sure they know there are people here who care about them.
"These are amazing heroes. They come to us as strangers, but they go home as family."
Dave Eminian covers the Rivermen and Chiefs for the Journal Star, and writes the Cleve in the Eve sports column for pjstar.com. Reach him at 686-3206 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.