Hunting with Warriors

Wounded Warrior Ultimate Turkey Hunt

Time spent in nature alongside Tennessee veterans reminds us all to slow down, be present, and appreciate all we have

It’s a little after 5:30a.m. The day is pleasant and we have settled into our ground blind. To my left is Jason Maxedon, the statewide director of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Although I have only known him for less than an hour, it is obvious he is a kind and thoughtful person. He is donating his time today to guide one of the participants in Terry and Jane Lewis’ annual Wounded Warrior Ultimate Turkey Hunt. 

The event is co-sponsored by Ron and Terry Cunningham who have a farm just down the road from the Lewis enclave. This is the events 20th year and I had the opportunity to have a candid conversation with my very good friend, Terry Lewis, the evening before with a bonfire crackling in the background as we stand next to a small stream as it rushes over the rocks. The occasional chorts of laughter, break the quiet conversations as stories not often shared are being told. There is a sense of respect that it is hard to convey in words. These men have endured what most of us cannot even imagine. Yet somehow they have come through that trauma and stood together witnessing to each other that the struggle may have been challenging, but they were stronger. They did not break. And I can tell as I watch my friend greet warrior after warrior that is it his respect for what they have endured that makes him want to give them something in return. His gift is his time, his farm, his continual effort to bring together more than 100 volunteers to make this event a reality. 

Terry Lewis, his wife Jane, and the Cunninghams are warriors in the their own right. They don’t do this for recognition; they do this because they truly care. I am humbled to be a small part of helping these warriors have an opportunity to experience turkey hunting in East Tennessee.

Wounded Warrior Ultimate Turkey Hunt

How it Began

I wanted to know how it all started. Terry tells me he was approached by a handicapped child who wanted to experience hunting. I can see the joy still in his eyes from making that young person’s dream come true. And it happened again the next year. So, after a few years he got the idea to offer this to wounded warriors. 

To do this is no small feat. Watching men roll down the gravel driveway at 4 a.m. to participate in the day brings realization to the level of sacrifice it takes for all of us to have our freedom. I feel humbled to be in their presence. Terry gathers everyone around to lay out the day, but first things first: a prayer for the day’s hunt. You can feel the respect of every person standing there. There is a sense of camaraderie I don’t often see. I haven’t heard a single complaint and do not expect that I will. After a wonderful breakfast, prepared by the volunteers, the day is underway. 

Wounded Warrior Ultimate Turkey Hunt

Within the Blind

Turkey hunting requires hours of stillness. The veteran Jason is guiding is Perry Thorington, a multi-tour veteran and recipient of more than one Purple Heart. He is sitting in the front of the blind and the day is slowly coming to life. A cacophony of birds are gently beginning to sing. It is truly miraculous. 

We talk in whispers as Perry quizzes us on our lives and who we are. He is feeling us out, seeing if we are trustworthy. Jason only has one arm due to an early age farming accident. Perry inquires, and Jason answers, “Got bit off by an alligator!” The silence hangs for a moment before Jason laughs gently and gives a few details. Sacrifice begets sacrifice and when asked, Perry regals us with tales of the battlefield. Some have levity, others run a chill down my spine. The realization of how important the sacrifices made by the men and women of our armed services truly are. 

The chatter of hundreds of songbirds is broken by the gobble of a turkey. Ol’ Tom is awake and letting the hens know he is about to be on the prowl. There is a fervor of concentration in the blind. I wonder why Jason doesn’t call back, but then recall Terry saying that calling too much will spook another bird. I can feel the anticipation in Perry. He moves his shotgun into position and shifts his chair to have a better vantage. It is light enough to see the spread of decoys about 20 yards in front of the blind. The turkey gobbles again. Jason whispers that it sounds like he is still in a tree, just awake and still in the roost. Another gobble and Jason has slipped a call into his mouth and is clucking like a hen. The call seems to work and the Tom gobbles again. 

“Get ready,” Jason whispers, “I just heard him break a stick.” I am impressed as I hadn’t heard it and for a moment wonder if that is the guide in him raising the expectation in the blind. I don’t have to wonder for long. “There he is at the edge of the woods right in front of us,” says Jason, as he calls quietly again. Perry is excited as are we all. The sound of the 12 gauge rips through the silence.

Wounded Warrior Ultimate Turkey Hunt

The Search

We looked for the bird, but no joy. And although we saw a few more at a distance, we had missed our chance. But truthfully, more often than not, hunting is about so much more. It is about being in nature. It’s about the camaraderie, whether with old friends or new, and sharing our time, ourselves, and our experiences. And as always, it is about making memories. I will not forget the stories of the day at the Lewis farm waiting for ol’ Tom turkey to make an appearance. 

For all of you non-hunters out there, you might like to know that it is only through the conservation efforts of the TWRA and people like the Lewises and the Cunninghams that we have such abundant wildlife throughout Tennessee today. More to come on that topic in a future issue.  

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