Michael Pearce

Hunting through the pain

Afghanistan veteran Ryan Myers has spent three years recovering from disabling wounds, and often wondered if he'd deer hunt again. Monday he shot this buck with double droptines in Elk County.
Afghanistan veteran Ryan Myers has spent three years recovering from disabling wounds, and often wondered if he'd deer hunt again. Monday he shot this buck with double droptines in Elk County. The Wichita Eagle

Eyes closed, Ryan Myers breathed the long, loud breaths of a man smoothing ragged nerves as he paused at the base of an elevated deer blind in Monday’s pre-dawn darkness. One slow, labored step at a time, he pulled his way up the access ladder and into the blind, where the 27-year-old sat trembling, waiting for daylight.

Such anxiety-fueled shaking, and a myriad of physical problems, have been constants in his life since an enemy bomb left the then-Army staff sergeant critically wounded in Afghanistan. He had doubted he would deer hunt again.

By Monday afternoon, though, Myers was shaking even harder than in the morning, for far different reasons.

“Look at how hard I’m shaking, but it’s because I’m happy and excited,” he said, his head cocked back as he laughed.

Myers had just shot what he repeatedly called “the buck of a lifetime,” a trophy-class animal in anyone’s book. In 40-plus seasons of deer hunting, I’ve never met a more deserving hunter.

From Kansas to Afghanistan

Myers grew up near Independence in southeast Kansas, working long hours in a farming family. He hunted and fished just as hard, and even got good enough to do some guiding while still a teen.

A growing family, and a desire for a dependable career, sent Myers into the Army in 2009. He progressed well in the military, all the while finding time for the outdoors, often with his wife, Stephanie.

Only days from when he was to return home in December 2011, an IED destroyed the vehicle in which Myers was riding. His back and legs were so severely damaged that even after three years of intensive rehabilitation, the Army rates him 90-percent disabled. He was forced to resign from the service, and can’t work because walking more than a minute or two is painful, as is the lifting or twisting of his torso. Assorted health issues means it’s not safe for him to drive.

The man that should be in the prime of his life said he spends most of his hours in a living-room recliner.

New friends

This is the second year four of us have hosted a wounded veteran on a whitetail hunt. The idea came after covering the Kansas Salutes the Troops event at Flint Oak, an Elk County hunting and shooting ranch, in 2012. There, Mike Hall, a wounded veteran and then a veteran’s advocate, told me the things such soldiers really need are friends, people who will treat them as equals. A few hours outdoors, he also said, beats days in a hospital.

I met Irona Cliver, a Marine veteran healing from emotional wounds, at last year’s Flint Oak event. She shot a 10-point buck with us last deer season, and still says that afternoon was one of the most positive things of her life.

Hall found Ryan Myers for this year. We met in Independence on Sunday evening. I could tell he was nervous as we drove through darkness to Elk County.

It takes courage for someone like Myers to leave the emotional comfort of home and go on a three-day hunt with strangers from another generation, none of whom had seen what he had seen.

That evening we had dinner at Greg Pickett’s. He’s a good friend who ranches and farms near Longton, and an outfitter during hunting seasons. Greg is also one of the best whitetail hunters around.

As Greg fixed chicken-fried venison steaks, mashed potatoes and gravy, Rick Mitchell, a local ranch manager, talked with Myers and showed him recent trail camera photos from the lands we’d be hunting. A bit of relaxation showed as Myers looked at a steady procession of nice bucks.

It was about then that Ryan quit referring to us as “sirs,” and as Rick, Greg, Mike and Ed. The latter, Ed Markel, is another close friend and owner of the ranch Rick manages.

Rick drove us the next morning to an elevated blind on a high ridge. Silhouetted against the brightening sky, the blind looked as tall as the Eiffel Tower. Ryan labored up and in, despite his challenges. With daylight, though, came sights that made it all worth his effort.

The 4,300-acre ranch is a perfect example of the Chautauqua Hills – rugged canyons with boulders the size of cars, dense stands of acorn-bearing oak trees on the sides and tall prairie grass on the top. The region holds some of Kansas’ top deer densities, but Ed and Rick up the appeal with 70 acres of food plots, as well as farmed fields, dedicated to the deer. Human access and hunting pressure are so limited that the whitetails feel comfortable moving during daylight hours.

The first doe appeared five minutes into shooting light, followed by a young eight-pointer. During the first 90 minutes, there was always a deer within 100 yards as they slowly moved toward bedding areas.

“I’ve already seen a season’s worth of deer,” Ryan said 30 minutes into the hunt. We tallied at least 34 whitetails by 8:30. The more deer we saw, the more he relaxed and talked.

I spent most of the morning listening to Ryan’s painful last three years.

He spoke of how far he’d come in rehabilitation, and how far he had yet to go, and the challenges Post-traumatic Stress Disorder brings when trying to revive some sense of normalcy. Ryan talked some about Afghanistan and fellow soldiers. He spoke more about his family, than anything, how his wife had to quit her job to become a full-time caregiver since his conditions means he can’t drive to the many appointments two or more hours in several directions.

Ed fixed a big brunch after Rick picked us up at the blind. After the dishes were done, Myers stood alone on the deck of Ed’s lodge, looking down at a lake and out over a 10-mile view. He was smiling and nodding his head in affirmation at the sight. When he turned to walk inside, I could tell he was sore.

“I’ll worry about (the pain) on Thursday,” he said when I asked if he wanted to skip the afternoon hunt.

A changed man

His talk was mostly of hunting as we waited in the mid-day ground blind. He told of his first try at hunting upon his return, and how the sound of a relative’s rifle shot had sent him first to the ground for cover, and then to the truck as fast as he could move. At that time, he was sure he’d never again be emotionally sound enough to hunt again.

But last summer his 7-year-old daughter, Madelyn, took an interest in shooting and hunting, something that primed his comeback. She shot a doe on opening morning of the youth deer season. Myers recalled how he jumped and hollered with excitement. He sat with his wife Dec. 3 when she shot a buck.

Not 10 minutes after he said, “You know, I think I’m ready to get back into this, that I can shoot a deer,” a nice buck calmly stepped into the food plot. Binoculars showed the buck had tall points, nice mass and a coveted droptine pointing downward from the mainbean.

Trained as a sniper, Myers easily made the 50-yard shot, then did two hours worth of talking in the 20 minutes we waited before recovering the buck. All of it was excited talk about hunting and the outdoors. His eyes positively glowed and his face beamed, reminding me of those of many children I’ve taken to their first turkey or deer.

He showed no pain walking to the downed buck, which carried two droptines amid its 16 scorable points. Myers’ high-five carried enough happiness to sting a little. Ed later said it was like looking at a different man when he drove up to the hunter and his buck.

When later shown a photo of her husband and the buck, Stephanie Myers commented how rare it is to see him smile in a photo.

“I don’t think I could have stopped if I’d have wanted to,” he told her.

Ryan shot a doe at daylight on Tuesday, then we headed toward his home east of Independence. He was exhausted, sore, and due some time in his recliner. He said it had always been easy to stay in the chair for days, using his injuries as an excuse to not venture out.

Now within his mind, and soon upon his wall, the wounded veteran will have proof he can still do great things when he heads outdoors.