COCHRANE, Wis. — On Wednesday morning seven veterans, bunking together in a single house, stirred well before dawn.
Most hailed from towns across Wisconsin and Minnesota, but two proud southerners traveled from Arkansas and South Carolina. Which wasn’t nearly as far as they’d traveled before: Tours of duty and training had taken the men as far as Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Italy and Kosovo.
They woke up under the same roof of a rustic home, tucked into a small road in a small town off Hwy. 35, blocks from the Mississippi River. One by one, they made their way down to the dining room of Kyle Bushman, their host for the week.
He’d invited the group of strangers to hunt with him.
Three years ago Bushman, 30, formed Hunts for Heroes, which sponsors guided hunts for disabled veterans, veterans and family members of those killed in action. The men hunt on several hundred acres of privately-owned land throughout Buffalo and Trempealeau counties offered for free by friends, family and neighbors.
They get stands, blinds and guns as they need. They eat free meals prepared by Cochrane VFW members and community members. If they shoot a deer, taxidermists and butchers step in to help. The event is supported in some way by countless community members.
“It’s very humbling to know these people respect the efforts and sacrifices veterans have endured,” Bushman said.
“In this small, backwoods — and at times backwards — part of the world, I don’t think there is any higher means of saying thank you than allowing someone from outside your immediate circle to hunt your land.
“That just doesn’t happen every day.”
After a hot breakfast of eggs, toast and deer sausage, the group gathered on a side porch — Bushman’s “man cave” — and pulled on camouflage coveralls, insulated boots and blaze orange hats and jackets. Then they piled into a 14-person school bus and made the 20-minute drive to Bushman’s family farm, a mile outside of Dodge, Wis.
They walked cautiously up a long, icy driveway and gathered near a shed on the edge of the wooded property. Under the harsh glare of a spotlight, Bushman pointed each of them to different hunting spots.
They split off in hopes of shooting a prized buck.
They split off carrying with them stories from the wars of America’s past.
Some, their injuries prevented them from seeing firsthand.
Some, they love to retell.
Some, they can’t forget.
The ‘sit-and-wait game’
Don Marsh, 53, headed up a steep hill to the left of the
shed. He stepped over the tops of long, white radishes poking out of the snow cover. The horizon was lightening but the sun was still out of sight.
“See, this one’s fresh,” he breathed, pointing out a hoof track with little snow filling it, taking note of the direction it pointed toward.
He wove his way to his spot, slowly and with several rest breaks to avoid moistening his inner layers of clothing. He arrived at a metal bench bound to a tree about 16 feet above ground, climbed the ladder, attached his backpack to the guardrail, settled into his seat and crossed his arms in the predawn silence.
“Now, it’s the sit-and-wait game,” he said under his breath.
It’s a game he’s played before.
Marsh’s childhood in Huntsville, Ark., was defined by his family’s military service. His grandpa drove a tank in World War II. His dad was a Marine in the Korean War.
“I was so proud of them growing up that I knew I wanted to be in the military,” he said. “I wanted my kids and grandkids to look up to me like they do now. With family — it is an honor just to have them honor you.”
Marsh enlisted in the Army when he was 18, months away from graduating high school.
He served for 12 years, 4 months and 14 days.
In the early years, he was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., with the 5th Special Forces Airborne Unit, where he spent time “learning to jump from perfectly good airplanes.”
He jumped from 3,000 feet. He learned to turn and twist his chute by pulling one side or the other, to look out at the horizon line as he drifted. He never looked down — that could spook you. He learned to always float the way he was facing so he could see what was coming.
“It’s fun, it’s like going on a ride,” he said. “That’s how I looked at it.”
Until the time it wasn’t.
It was a cold day in North Carolina — maybe 19 or 20 degrees — and the wind was brutal. Marsh’s feet grew cold as he sat waiting for his chopper.
He wanted to get the jump over with. He was a little less careful.
It was a short jump, and somehow he got going backward in the wind. He couldn’t see the reserve parachutes stacked up tall like woodpiles coming up behind him.
He hit it and it flipped him upside down.
He hit the ground headfirst.
He hit it so hard it busted both straps on his helmet.
When he came to, he saw a group of soldiers gathered around him. He was diagnosed with a serious concussion.
He didn’t know he’d hurt his back until a few days later.
He still carries the pain with him. Marsh will do some task and won’t notice it bothered him for two or three days.
Then: “Boom! It hits me like I just did it.”
Marsh calls them back attacks. When he gets one he can be laid up in bed for a week.
But after the injury he wasn’t done. After the Army, he joined the Army Reserves for two years. Then he joined the National Guard for a trial year, then signed on for six more, where he was in the same unit as his childhood best friend.
During Operation Desert Storm his unit got called into action.
He was scheduled for back surgery but went to Fort Sill to be deployed. Marsh felt his special forces training could help his friends survive. The medic was hesitant to send him off — if something went wrong, it could cost someone else’s life. Still, he was ushered through to another checkpoint in Little Rock.
There, the medic refused to sign off.
“I went back to my unit and I had to tell them, I can’t go — they’re sending me home,” Marsh said. “And to see grown men cry over not being able to go to war …”
He was sent home on a Greyhound bus in full uniform, his gear in tow. He was assigned to a different Guard unit. He knew no one. Two months later, he got his back surgery at the VA hospital in Little Rock.
For weeks, he sat home to recover. He played the sit-and-wait game as he listened to stories from the war afar. He spent hours each day glued to his television and radio. His friends in combat had little time to call.
“I was like, ‘Why couldn’t I have been there?’” he said. “I wanted to be there.”
A search for old friends
Stationed just down the hill from Marsh was Dale Harbitz, an elementary-school principal from Sherburn, Minn.
Harbitz, 63, said he enlisted in the Army in July 1968 partially out of defiance.
“There was a lot of anti-war sentiment during Vietnam and some people were for supporting the U.S. in war, but a lot of people weren’t,” he said. “And you know, rather than let somebody tell me if it was right or wrong, I figured the best way to find out was to go see for myself.”
Ask Harbitz about his experiences in war and he’ll tell you first about the friends he made.
“When you’re in combat, and you’re living and sleeping together and living in the jungle 24 hours a day, you get pretty close to the guys you serve with,” he said. “Some of the things you live through together, you kind of create a bond that’s pretty much unbreakable.”
But Harbitz and his comrades were torn apart by the circumstances of war. They all left at different times, whether they were wounded or reassigned or fled. Some died, and Harbitz never had a chance to grieve.
For 35 years, Harbitz wondered what had happened to his friends. Then one day he began poking around the Internet to see if he could find them.
It wasn’t hard.
He found the family of a soldier he knew who had been killed in a bunker by a rocket explosion. He helped identify unknown faces in photos the family had kept from the camera he left behind.
He found out one of his closest friends, who dreamed of becoming a deep-sea diver, had died of a brain tumor years earlier.
Some men he found had no interest in reliving memories of war. But many did, and they were able to pick up right where they left off decades ago.
“After getting back together, we find that we’re still very close friends,” Harbitz said. “You could call any of them at any time and I know a bunch of the guys, they’d come and help me. And if they needed help, I’d come and help them, too.”
The group began holding annual reunions in locations around the country. The storytelling at these gatherings led the group to publish a book of memories for their families to keep after they’re gone.
“I don’t have a lot of good things to think about or to say about the act of mankind waging war on itself — I don’t think there’s anything good that comes from that,” Harbitz said. “But I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything.”
A way to talk about the good, the bad and the ugly
After the group finished Wednesday morning without a trophy to show for their efforts, Bushmen rallied the men to the bus for a lunch in town, his uncle’s treat.
Bushman enrolled in the Army in June 2002 with his best friend after a year of college. He enrolled partly because of the financial assistance, partially because it was something he wanted to do.
“And I suppose some of it had to do with being an able-bodied male a few months post-9/11,” he said.
Bushman was deployed in 2004 and 2005 with a platoon that spent a year running counter-insurgency and stability operations 50 miles north of Baghdad. He still remembers pulling up in a convoy on the day of Iraq’s first democratic vote. He had spent many missions hauling concrete barriers, securing and checking voting sites to make sure they were safe and preparing for the worst.
He recalled seeing people cycling through the site, smiling and holding up their ink-covered thumbs, and remembers thinking to himself, This is the first time I think I’ve seen these people excited about their future.
The idea of organizing the hunt came to Bushman three years ago at a National Guard training center in Pennsylvania, when he learned of an organization that put together outdoor events for transitioning soldiers to get their minds off rehabilitation.
It also came from a day in 2004, when a friend convinced him to take time to go hunting while he was on leave before shipping out to Iraq.
He was 21, scared for what was to come.
It’ll probably do you some good, Bushman recalled his friend saying.
And he shot one of the biggest bucks of his life.
“I hadn’t thought for one second about what that next year was going to be like, hadn’t thought at all about the emotional stress I was going through,” he said. “It was just perfect.”
Now 30, Bushman farms with his brother, Lee, and works for his father, Mike, in his ag-retail business B&B Agri Sales. He spends any extra time working in operations at Fort McCoy. This is the third year he’s arranged a Hunts for Heroes event. His goal is simply to provide veterans with a release, an opportunity to connect with one another.
“You can take a handful of veterans from any military campaign from the past 75 years, throw them in a room, and within five minutes the conversation will flow effortlessly,” he said.
“At some point, and in some way, it’s good and healthy to converse about the good, bad, and ugly.
“And to whom better than someone who has been through a similar experience.”