Hunting for Heroes opportunity touched hearts of veterans

Oct 4, 2015 By Scott Akanewich, Sports Editor

Men from six states took part Sept. 18-20.

Jose Rodriguez had been hunting before.

But as a rifleman with the U.S. Marines in the jungles of Southeast Asia, his targets weren't antelope, but North Vietnamese Army regulars and Viet Cong.

Back then, in 1967, they were hunting him as well.Wounded on three separate occasions, the young corporal earned the Purple Heart for his battlefield injuries.

After his days in the Marine Corps ended, he found himself back home looking for a hobby.

So, he bought himself a hunting rifle.

"I got a shotgun and didn't know anything about it," said Rodriguez, who hunted growing up in his native Guadalajara, Mexico, before moving to California. "But I began hunting in 1971."

Over three decades later, the San Jose resident found himself on the hunt once again.However, much friendlier environs surrounded him this time, as he was an invited participant Sept. 18-20 in the Hunting With Heroes program outside Riverton.

A chance to give back

The event offers custom programs for the unique needs of disabled veterans.Rodriguez, along with 11 other veterans, was hosted by state agencies, landowners and local volunteers during the hunt.

"I'm very fortunate and blessed to have been a part of it all," said Rodriguez. "It was an incredible hunt, and the people there treated us absolutely wonderfully."

Hunting With Heroes director Darin Coyle said the program provides him and others with the opportunity to give something back to the men and women who have served in U.S. armed forces.

"Sometimes, I feel like we don't give our troops enough support when they come home," said Coyle, whose own military aspirations were derailed by injuries. "My deal, though, is if you're going to complain about something, then step up and do something about it, which is what this is all about."

Red carpet

Coyle said coordinating the three-day event, which brought veterans in from seven states was a chore unto itself. He added that it was truly a labor of love nonetheless.

"It took a lot of work and a lot of time," Coyle said. "But, when you get out there, you realize it's not really a job because it's so fun."

Providing housing and food for the hunters was just the beginning of the red carpet treatment that was rolled out for the 12 men, said Coyle.

"They couldn't have been in better hands the entire time they were here," he said. "But we still had to get landowners to donate tags, not to mention one guide for each hunter."

Col. (Ret.) Mark Lisi of Lacey, Washington, also was on hand for the weekend. The former U.S. Army Ranger said he felt a profound sense of humility.

"It was very humbling to be around what I call 'salt-of-the-Earth' people," said Lisi, an alumnus of the2nd Ranger Battalion. "You could tell people genuinely cared about our service. It was grand indeed."

With the word "heroes" being thrown around, Lisi was under no false pretenses concerning himself and his fellow combat veterans.

"When it comes down to it, we're nobody special," he said. "We all knew what we were signing up for."

Sobering experience

Lisi's military discipline came in handy once boots were on the ground, he said.

"I knew when I got out there, it would be tough to not kill the first thing I saw," he said with a laugh as he described what it was like to roll up to potential targets. "'Get back to the car!' my guide kept telling me."

When the time arrived for him to aim down the scope of his weapon, all of his military marksmanship training suddenly returned, he said.

"Shooting skills are shooting skills," said Lisi.

However, the adrenaline was going, which made it a bit more difficult.

"When I was trying to settle the crosshairs, I actually pulled the trigger before I was ready," he said.

Despite the itchy trigger finger, his objective dropped to the ground off in the distance some 250 meters away.

"Doesn't get any better," said Lisi of his trophy.

Rodriguez also had to exercise patience during his quest for big game, he said.

"We were looking for a bigger animal," said Rodriguez. "Walking down a road, we spotted the one we were searching for."

At that point, he ascended a hill to get a shot.

"He was hiding in the sage," said Rodriguez.

While he was attempting to zero-in on his prey, suddenly, another target of opportunity presented itself, he said.

"I saw another buck about 270 yards away," said Rodriguez. "I asked my guide if I should shoot it, and he said 'go ahead.'"

So, Rodriguez sent a round downrange and hit his mark on the money.

"I think I did OK," he said.

However, he did have fleeting second thoughts.

"You think about the fact you're taking a life," said Rodriguez. "But it'll be about six or seven months worth of meat."

Quilts of valor

Following the hunt on Saturday evening, everyone involved gathered at the North Portal Fire Hall for a dinner to celebrate the weekend and everything it represented.

The 12 veterans were each presented with a "Quilt of Valor" to honor them for their service to America.

Lisi was incredibly moved by the gesture, he said.

"You could have heard a pin drop," said Lisi. "For them to put them around our shoulders like they did was a pretty moving event."

After an emotional weekend, it was almost more than Rodriguez could take, he said.

"Wow, I got teary-eyed," said Rodriguez. "The one I chose is very patriotic and is something I'll always treasure because of the commitment and love it was made with."

That wasn't all.

"Once we were given the quilts, a little girl was there who came along and shook all our hands," he said. "It really touched a lot of our hearts."

For Coyle, it was a crowning event for the entire weekend.

"It was an amazing experience," said Coyle, of the presentation. "I'll never forget the smiles on their faces. It was life-changing for me to see these guys -- some of whom haven't necessarily had a lot to smile about for a long time -- I was in tears."

After experiencing everything the entire weekend had to offer, Lisi realized the bigger picture the event provided.

"Actually, the hunt was secondary," said Lisi. "The amount of love that was magnanimously lavished on us by the good people of Wyoming was amazing. I can't really describe it."

Humbling for all

Rodriguez described the experience as surreal.

"I've never hunted antelope back home in California," said Rodriguez. "You see it on television and wonder about what it's like. It was definitely on my bucket list."

Gratitude was the order of the day, he said.

"Being afforded the opportunity to do this, it's difficult to put into words how incredible it is to be able to enjoy it," said Rodriguez. "Everyone who put this on deserves an untold amount of praise."

Even after returning home,Rodriguez said hestill looks back with amazement and appreciation on everything that happened in Wyoming.

"Every time I think back on all the kindness, gentleness and love the people there showed us and how they made us feel, I thank God," he said. "Especially those of us who served in Vietnam and didn't get that back then. I've never felt anything like that and it's something I'll always remember."