“It doesn't matter whether we get a deer or not,” I told Dmitri.
Easy for me to say.
The important thing was to make him a hunter. To give him an experience, a RESET, a moment in time to look back on, a challenge. If there was a trophy and a story to savor, good; if not, it didn't matter.
I think it mattered to Dmitri.
We call it Hunting with Heroes, a program put on by a foundation called Home with Heroes. McNett Corporation, Alpha Ecological, Wal-Mart of Redmond, and Sportsman's Warehouse of Vancouver, Wash., are the primary sponsors with the aim to find deserving vets from foreign wars and put them in the field and on the water.
Event organizer Jake Carse asked me to take Dmitri, a two-tour Iraq vet, on his first deer hunt on the Klickitat prairie.
On the eve of opening day, with just an hour of light left, I took Dmitri on a tour. We looked at the canyon of the Little Klickitat and the draws that funnel deer up and down out of the patches of oaks and fir trees.
On a log on the top of the canyon, I left some mule deer doe-in-heat scent. Sometimes little things like that can hold a buck in an area long enough to get a look at him.
Back at the house, we worked on trigger press and control and shooting positions. I had him move the trigger touch point from the middle of the index finger to the whorl of his fingerprint.
“It's not a trigger pull, it's a trigger press.” His Marine Corps training kicked in.
Scott Sneer had seen a four-point on a ridge back in the oak trees. He thought we should start there first. We waited for dawn.
The pheasant hunters wouldn't start until 9. We had two hours. In a 10-acre patch of woods, we looked at 25 deer; five were bucks — forked horns and spikes. Under a restriction to bucks with three points or better, all we could do was look.
Dmitri began to notice the wind. He began to reason why the deer were doing what they were doing and what they might do next. The Marine was becoming a hunter.
To qualify for this program, a vet must be nominated by a friend. References are checked and an invitation is made. Some of the veterans served in Afghanistan, some in Iraq, some in Vietnam or Korea. Some suffer from wounds, while others have had trouble shedding the stress of battle. All are thankful someone cares. Any one vet can name another they say is more deserving. When they accept the gift of a hunt, they receive it on behalf of veterans across the country, on behalf of their brothers and sisters still deployed. If there is a theme, it is “welcome home.”
Back home in Vancouver, the Home with Heroes foundation and Home Depot were remodeling Dmitri's two-bedroom house. His wife, almost nine months pregnant, was let in on the secret. With a baby on the way and Dmitri's mom moving in, the Marine had some pressure. Some of that pressure was soon to be relieved.
When the pheasant hunt started, we switched fields and eased across the pasture in a truck, headed to that long canyon.
“We'll go in on foot,” I told Dmitri. That was when I saw three deer bedded on a hill. A quick look with the binocular showed one was a spike. We rolled over the top of the hill and six deer stood up. One of them was a buck, a two-by-four with antlers as wide as his ears. We had put the work in over the last 2 1/2 hours. If a buck wanted to come easy, who was I to argue? Dmitri loaded the rifle and shot the buck offhand at 100 yards. His drill instructor would have been proud.
Five does jumped the fence and we walked down to where the buck had come to rest.
“I'm already thinking about how to get ready for next year,” Dmitri said. “I want to go hunting again and figure out how to do it on my own.”
Like a lot of vets that go through a program like Hunting with Heroes, Dmitri will be there next year with his hand on someone else's shoulder.
“This hunt changed my life,” Dmitri said. “I will never be the same again.”
I drove him home to Vancouver. There were cars parked on both sides of his street and 50 people in his yard wearing orange Home Depot shirts.
Welcome home, Dmitri. You will never be the same again.