Correction: Bobby Conner's first name was incorrect in a previous version of the story. Marcus Dancy suffered from post traumatic stress disorder.
Marcus Dancy knew great bravery on patrol in Iraq, from which he returned wounded physically and mentally.
Yet he felt fear driving Kansas backroads Friday afternoon, as post traumatic stress disorder symptom had him uneasy of trying the unknown.
“I kept thinking I ought to just turn around and go home,” said Dancy, of Manhattan.
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But eventually he was eating a great meal, smiling, talking and laughing in a large lodge ... and from there his weekend got much better.
Dancy was one of 23 wounded veterans at this weekend’s third annual Kansas Salutes the Troops event at Flint Oak, a posh, 5,000-acre hunting facility.
“We just want to say thanks to them and let them know there are people who care,” said Bobby Conner, one of the program’s originators and directors.
All expenses were paid for the veterans, thanks to dozens of sponsors that range from a local car dealership to the corporate likes of Coleman and Cabela’s.
Conner said the sponsors pay upwards of $5,000 for the chance to spend the weekend hunting, target shooting and dining with the veterans.
“A lot don’t even send anyone. They just want to help these guys,” said Conner, a Vietnam veteran. “It’s extremely rewarding to me to see how these guys are treated (at Flint Oak) compared to how we were treated when we came home.”
After a meal and socializing Friday evening, about 45 hunters headed out into the cold, heavy grayness of Saturday morning.
Since disabilities kept many of the group from walking the fields with dogs, the Flint Oak staff got the birds to the hunters.
With the group safely stationed at various points around a huge, rugged woodland, the staff released waves of pen-raised birds. Cackling and flying fast, pheasants flew erratic patterns over the towering oaks as they passed above the hunters.
Shotgun fire crackled like strings of firecrackers, but laughter and excited yelling were nearly as loud.
Mike Hall, a veteran from Independence severely burned in Iraq, walked around the woodlot as his hunting partner, Bryan Price, negotiated the terrain in his wheelchair.
This was Hall’s second Kansas Salutes the Troops event, and he was responsible for getting many of the wounded veterans to attend.
He said the shooting brings the people, but it’s not what makes the event special.
“This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life, spending time with these guys,” Hall said as the group took a break for coffee, sodas and super-sized cookies hot from the oven. “(The sponsors) are just treating us like guys. We’re out here and we get to laughing, joking and ribbing each other. That’s what really makes it fun.”
Hall smiled and shook his head slightly when asked about getting wounded soldiers, some with emotional issues, around so much shooting.
“Think about it,” he said. “We’re soldiers, shooting is what we do.”
Price, an avid hunter before his accident, said, “Nothing makes me feel better than getting out and shooting a gun. It gives me that old at-the-range feeling like when I was a kid.”
Dancy, who had never hunted, said he came to try something new.
Jeff Oakes, Flint Oak manager, told the veterans upon arrival, “We want you shooting or eating the entire time you’re here.” Most tried to live up to the request.
Ammo was unlimited and empty shotgun shells filled boxes in each hunting blind as the pheasant hunt ended.
Hundreds of rounds were fired at clay targets in the afternoon.
Back at the lodge, the once-nervous Dancy moved at ease, talking with fellow veterans and assorted sponsors.
Hall joked with new friends made that day and those he’d made the year before.
Conner said some solid friendships between veterans and sponsors have developed through the years. They’ve also seen some signs of helping in the wounded veterans’ healing.
He referenced a soldier from a past event who was so withdrawn he barely left his house the two previous years, and had to be coaxed into Flint Oak’s lodge by friends. Conner said the veteran gradually came out of his shell at the event, did well and left a much happier man.
“We got an e-mail from him about three weeks later, thanking us,” Connor said. “He also said he’d actually gone out and taken his kids trick-or-treating for the first time ever. That’s neat.”