MITCHELL COUNTY — During four deployments, Sgt. Maj. Dave Santos led men in often-violent areas of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last week, he led men in the peaceful setting of Kansas' Smoky Hills in a far different environment.
"I'm just Dave on this hunt," he told a gathering of 10 Fort Riley soldiers that included several privates. "Out here we're equals. It's important you understand that we're on a level playing field while we're here."
This is the third hunting season in which Fort Riley has sent 20 to 30 10-person groups to Ringneck Ranch, a shooting preserve about 80 miles northwest of Salina. Groups usually contain five officers or non-commissioned officers and five junior enlisted soldiers.
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Often the latter are young soldiers recently home from their first deployment.
"It's designed to open levels of communications between the soldiers, to build relationships," Santos said. "When we're at work, we're often seen as unapproachable by the men. This is to let them know who we really are, to give them somebody to talk to. A lot of soldiers need that."
To encourage mentoring, Santos and his peers paired with lesser-ranked soldiers. Together they shot clay targets their first afternoon at the ranch and shared rooms for two nights.
By day, the program sees the soldiers following guides and bird dogs in fields well-stocked with pheasants.
A need for mentoring
The idea for the hunt came from a 2007 sportsman's banquet and gathering in, of all places, Iraq.
Command Sgt. Maj. Jim Champagne and others there got the idea of mentoring hunts when they saw brochures for a Ringneck Ranch hunt to be raffled.
He already knew many Fort Riley soldiers were interested in the outdoors. Champagne, who has taken several mentoring groups to the ranch, said the military often tries to find ways to get soldiers away from Fort Riley and into the Kansas countryside.
"The outdoors is one of the best things Kansas has to offer and we want them to take advantage of that," he said.
Soldiers have gone on fishing, canoeing and other outdoors adventures, too.
Soldiers are selected by their superiors based on a variety of criteria. Some make the trip because they show particular promise for an extended military career. Others are selected because some special attention might help them work through possible problems.
Santos said soldiers just returning from first deployments sometimes struggle emotionally with merging back into society.
That's when chances are highest for a variety of problems, including alcohol, drug abuse and suicide.
"It's important they know they are important and have people who can help," Santos said.
Traditional protocol seemed to be in the air during Sunday afternoon's trip to the target range, but gradually melted after they went afield the next morning.
Champagne said the program utilizes the shooting preserve's ability to stock birds and offer seasons and limits above state limitations — ensuring soldiers plenty of action.
"It's important to get them into birds, for them to share in feeling that rush of adrenalin," he said. "That gives them a connection with the others right away."
Minutes into Monday morning's hunt, pheasants started flying. Several sergeants passed up opportunities to give a lower-ranked enlisted man a chance.
Laughter was common, as were congratulations and good-natured ribbings amid the ranks.
Champagne said the trips are the first hunting experience for some soldiers and the first time afield since their long months of deployment for those who were once avid sportsmen.
He said watching the bird dogs working scent, pointing and retrieving always draw accolades from the soldiers.
Within Santos' group, it was the first time shooting a shotgun or hunting for Spc. Justin Hartmann, a south Florida native.
It was the first bird hunt in several years for Pfc. Jared Smothers, who grew up training wide-ranging quail dogs with his father.
"It was worth the trip for me just to see bird dogs working again," he said. "I've really missed that."
Champagne said post-trip reports from soldiers show the events are some of the most popular sponsored by Fort Riley. And that's not just because of the hunting.
Talking at the table
Groups stay at Blue Hills Lodge, an establishment secluded in the Smoky Hills and operated by sisters Lila Lawrence and Lisa Hake.
The location has steep prairie hills for miles with a large, fish-filled pond at the edge of the yard. A fire pit is near the house and poker tables are inside.
Meals are homemade by the sisters and include steaks, pork and a variety of breakfast dishes.
Talk flowed especially fast amid young soldiers and superiors as the meal's courses were passed and finished. Such dialogue is the main purpose of the trip.
"The hunting is what brings us but it's really just a bonus, an ice-breaker," Santos said. "The camaraderie is the most important, always."
The man with 19 years in the Army stressed that the programs aren't focused towards getting junior soldiers to re-enlist.
"If they have questions about our careers, we'll certainly answer them and help if that's what they want," Santos said. "If they decide they want to move on after their time is up, we will totally support and help them with that, too."
Monday, Santos' group of 10 men totaled about 80 pheasants. They elected not to hunt in Tuesday morning's below-zero wind chill, more for the protection of the dogs than themselves.
Late that morning they made the two-hour drive back to Fort Riley. When they stepped from the trucks, military protocol was again in order.
The sergeants and lower-ranked men were no longer equals.
Smothers said he'll look at his superiors a bit differently now, though.
"It was amazing just getting to sit down and talk with and have fun with someone like a sergeant major," said Smothers, 22. "In the military we're all so very conscious of rank. This humanizes them, lets us see they're a real person. I'm still a private first-class, but I think I understand a lot more."
Champagne predicts many of the relationships will continue.
"The first soldier I took out played the trombone in the band, was from Chicago and had never hunted before. He really ended up getting into the outdoors after that trip," he said. "We still keep in touch. He'll probably be leaving Fort Riley this summer but I think he knows I'm there to help if he ever needs me. That happens a lot in this program."