Wounded Warriors honored with hunting
The Hawk Eye, Burlington, Iowa
MIDDLETOWN - Mike Simester loves to hunt.
Unfortunately, injuries he suffered while serving eight years in the U.S. Army have left him unable to hunt on his own. While serving in Iraq in 2003, his head hit the door of the truck he was riding in, causing traumatic brain injury. A couple of years later, Simester was involved in a head-on collision while riding his motorcycle on a military base.
"They had to take some bones out of my right leg, and they medically retired me after that," the 35-year-old Muscatine resident said.
Simester has to walk with the help of a cane these days, which makes it impossible to track down deer and carry them back. If it wasn't for events like the second annual Iowa Fish and Game Conservation Officer Association's Wounded Warrior Hunt, he wouldn't get to hunt at all.
"I like coming to these hunts and having a good time," he said. "They only offer this kind of stuff when there is interest."
Simester and three fellow Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans from Iowa took advantage of the hunt on the Iowa Army Ammunition Plant grounds Saturday morning. They searched for deer with muzzle-loading rifles while huddled inside tree-mounted hunting blinds, but there wasn't much to see.
The constant rain caused the local deer to hunker down for the morning, which meant no one was able to take home a trophy. But the hunting was only secondary. It mostly was about the companionship and the opportunity to get out of the house.
"I can sit in the blinds all day. As long as I'm not staring at the walls of my house," Simester said. "I had a full-time job since I was 14 and not working is not something I know how to do."
The Wounded Warrior Project, which is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to "honor and empower wounded warriors," provides several similar hunts across the country.
"A couple of years ago, I went to Alaska on a black bear hunt. That was a lot of fun," Simester said.
The IAAP hunt was started by Iowa Department of Natural Resources officer Paul Kay, who wanted to do something for the wounded veterans who gave so much to their country.
"I saw a Trace Adkins commercial about (Wounded Warrior hunts), and I thought we should put something together," he said.
Clay Jensen, 36, of Marshalltown served in the U.S. Army for 16 years and spent six of those years in the Special Forces. While serving in Iraq in 2003, he suffered a gunshot wound to his right shoulder. In 2007, the helicopter Jensen was riding in while he served in Afghanistan was shot down by a rocket, which gave him a traumatic head injury.
"It was about two years of neurological rehab, learning how to walk straight, how to read," he said.
Jensen has come a long way since then, but like Simester, he is plagued by short-term memory loss.
"I haven't hunted since I joined the Army," he said.
Though Jensen also suffers from constant migraine headaches, he was happy to do his part in defending America.
"I had friends who died over there, and it kept inspiring me to go back," he said.
Steve Fortney, 43, of Muscatine has served in the National Guard and Army Reserve for 19 years and is awaiting a medical discharge. He served in Iraq from 2003 to 2004 and doesn't remember the incident that damaged his knee. He also suffers from hearing loss from exploded improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, and like many soldiers, Fortney returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"My family has been in the military. I wanted to be in the military since I was 14, but I was too young, and I had to wait until I was 17 to join," he said.
Fortney still enjoys hunting and wasn't surprised the deer were hunkering down for the day.
"The only thing I saw was a turkey and a couple of squirrels," he said.
Nick, 42, of Muscatine requested his last name not be used in this story and said he was grateful for the opportunity to do something active instead of being mollycoddled, which is something many wounded soldiers face when they return home.
"It's a great feeling for us, instead of being treated with kid gloves," he said.
Nick joined the Army in 1989 and still is serving, despite suffering a traumatic brain injury when his truck hit an IED in Iraq in 2006.
"The other two guys in the back of the truck didn't make it," he said.