Looking back on Kansas Salutes the Troops

I almost didn’t attend last weekend’s Kansas Salutes the Troops program at Flint Oak.

Bobby Connor, left, a sponsor for Saturday's Kansas Salutes the Troops event walks with wounded veterans Bryan Price and Mike Hall.

There, a variety of individuals, companies and corporations hold annual gatherings  to befriend and host wounded veterans on an amazing three days at the legendary hunting/shooting facility in Elk County.

Don’t get me wrong, every description that came with the invitation painted an amazing event. The problem was, I’d already done two stories on disabled people enjoying the outdoors within the past month. Salute the Troops was going to be a very high priority in 2013.

But I went, I watched, I wrote, and I’m still processing what I saw, heard and now feel…and wishing I wouldn’t have been on such a tight deadline so I could have better done the event justice.

YOU CAN CLICK HERE TO READ SUNDAY’S STORY ABOUT THE EVENT.

The financial generosity of the sponsors, from as near and far as Wichita, Garden City, Chicago and Virginia, was really something. All expenses were paid and a lot of prizes awarded to the veterans. The best, by far, was an excellent, all expenses paid elk hunt in Colorado, which a sponsor bought and allowed to be given to a veteran via a drawing. We’re talking at least a $5,000 value.

The gifts of time, friendship, open ears and laughter were much more impressive, and valued by the veterans. These sponsors all had the financial means to be anywhere in the world, literally, but they spent a precious weekend away from family, friends, football games and favored hunting spots to just befriend  someone they’d never before met, but would keep in their lives forever.

Wounded veterans Bryan Price, left, and Alan Norton, talk during a break at their Kansas Salutes the Troops pheasant hunt on Saturday.

Phone numbers and e-mail addresses were exchanged, and promises made to help the veterans get through tough emotional and physical times, assist them in finding jobs and take them on future hunts at the sponsor’s private hunting grounds.

Here are some of the things I saw and heard that left the largest impressions.

–Most Americans have no clue the amount of emotional damage many of our vets bring when they’re quickly transferred from a brutal war to mainstream society in the U.S.

–”You can throw money at some things all you want, and still get nothing done,” one vet, a burn victim, said of his appreciation of the time spent by the sponsors. “They don’t care that my legs are three colors when I’m wearing shorts.”

–”It’s good to know that for guys like us, when we’re awake at 3 a.m., and wondering how in the (heck) we’re going to just make it through the next day, that we have friends, that we have people who care,” one veteran told the group.

– A chaplain on a long, therapeutic ramble talked about what it is like to be holding a soldier’s hand, when he awakes from surgery and asks the chaplain the extent of his wounds. Or, being bedside when a freshly  mangled soldier is calling home and telling his wife something like, “Hi honey, I didn’t have a very good day. We got hit hard and…”

–And let me tell you, brave men and women do cry in front of strangers, often quickly ,and they hug, and they say “I love you” to each other, even if they’re never met.

–There is a bond between these veterans that I will never be able to comprehend because I’ve never been where they’ve been,and  sacrificed what they’ve sacrificed.

–When one breaks down, others are there instantly there to help bring them back up. These are common people doing amazingly uncommon things for one another.

–And these people were often in harms’ way because of their love for America, but they’ll tell you the American government is seriously letting them down in so many ways.  That includes financially, physically and emotionally.

–They do appreciate things as simple as a handshake, pat on the back and very sincere “thank you” from strangers.

The pheasant hunting was fantastic, but the bonds made between wounded veterans and their hosts was far more important.

To the veterans, I give thanks  for their service, and my hopes and prayers that they get the help and support that they need.

To the sponsors, I say thanks for opening my eyes.