Sweat soaked through the desert camo bucket hat covering Chris Middleton's head, adding character to the camo pattern around the Army sergeant's insignia on the front, above his reddened face.
"I'm going to be feeling this the next few days," he said as the sun dipped to create long shadows on the corn stubble and the mourning doves finished flying for the day. "Yep, you sure will," his wife, Lacy, said. "He'll go home and be down for three days."
The Dyer, Ark., couple was finishing up their third visit to the annual Healing the Heroes Dove Hunt with local guide Kelly Walker on fields north of Tulsa last Saturday. The former cavalry soldier and his wife are regulars and have recruited two other wounded vets from the Dyer area to join in the fun.
With a pile of doves, spent shotgun shells and empty water and Gatorade bottles at their feet, they were wrapping up a good two hours of steady shooting, head-swiveling and yelling out to nearby companions, "Look up high!" "Behind you, behind you!" and "Here comes some more!" all induced by dozens of doves that swirled past them on the sultry, windless, blue-sky afternoon.
This was no feet-up, umbrella-beverage type of outing, but Middleton said the main reason he keeps coming to the event, and the reason he has recruited friends and encourages others to attend, comes down to one thing. "It relaxes me," he said.
Initiated with help from and still connected to the national Wounded Warrior Project, the Healing the Heroes event continues to grow primarily through word-of-mouth connections with participants like Middleton, said Walker, a founder.
This was an off year participation-wise with just 11 guys. There were a few no-shows, but with a group battling health issues that's never a surprise.
The veterans arrive Friday evening and enjoy a banquet complete with door prizes and giveaways. In the morning they shoot trap and skeet, break for lunch, hunt doves in the afternoon and enjoy a wrap-up dinner before going home - all at no cost.
"Next year we're hoping for 60. We'll hunt two fields," Walker said. The planned participation increase comes with sponsorship from Oklahoma City-based Cactus Drilling Co., plans for more direct word-of-mouth recruitment and public information efforts like this newspaper story. "Any disabled veteran, we want to show them our appreciation," Walker said.
The renewed effort at growth is due primarily to Walker's connection with people at Cactus. "We were hunting," he said. "We were just sitting in the duck blind talking about it and it went from there. ... My hat is off to them."
Middleton said he is a lifelong outdoorsman and gunsmith, so the outdoors and hunting are natural escapes for him. Regardless, he said the camaraderie is always worth the trip for him and for his wife, who is his full-time caregiver. "Being with other people who've been where you are is a big deal," Lacy Middleton said.
Injuries forced Chris' military retirement five years ago, but he carries with him for life effects of the "bad day." His unit ran into a "fortified front," where explosions from bombs and rocket-propelled grenades knocked him out of his Humvee. He climbed back in six times to keep firing his turret-mounted 50-caliber machine gun.
"The past couple years I'm a lot better," he said. "This is the best year I've had. I'm not drooling on myself and I haven't had to use my cane or my wheelchair in a long time.
"I do have an MRI coming up I'm not real excited about," Middleton added, but then more doves flew by. One that the pair dropped wore a band on its leg - part of a dove population study. "You can report it and find out where it was caught and how old it is," Middleton said.
After that, there were things more relaxing than medical procedures to talk about.