Looking out over the valley, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Wow, what a magnificent place.” Then I turned to look at Braxton sitting on the rock and couldn’t believe what we had just filmed. Essentially, it was the heart of a veteran and how his heart is shaped by hunting. By looking at Braxton and listening to him talk, you may be transported into the early 1950s, the early days of the West. He’s a typical good ol’ boy cowboy, wearing his typical western gear, waxing eloquently about the trials of life, and poetically discussing his favorite author and poet. What you wouldn’t know is that Braxton is a retired Army Sergeant who got blown up by a suicide bomber in Ramadi, Iraq. Twenty-four surgeries and shrapnel still within his body 12 years later, there was one place for a cathartic type healing –the wilderness with a bow in his hand while hunting.
I didn’t grow up in the United States, so the idea of military, being in the military, and being a part of something bigger is a foreign concept. I grew up in South Africa, a country that you really don’t have a sense of duty for. Don’t get me wrong, I love my country and still do 15 years later after leaving to come to the States, but there is not a patriotic sense imbued in us as young South Africa men and women that makes us want to rush to the frontlines and stand shoulder to shoulder with our neighbor as the enemy decides to come over the rise in front of us to threaten our country. Now living in the States, raising two boys to be Americans, I was struck watching them sword fight in the backyard this past Memorial Day weekend, wondering whether either of them will take up that proverbial flag and go into the military without a familial background to lay a path for recruitment. I would be a very proud father if they did. One could argue that hunting is the same way.
I come from a family steeped in hunting heritage, but it almost would have skipped a generation or died with my father if I hadn’t come to the United States and become a hunter. One of the reasons I was able to become that hunter, to be able to pass this torch of hunting heritage onto my boys, is because of Veterans, those past and those still with us, like Braxton, who fought for the freedoms that this country holds so true. If you have interacted with veterans in an outdoor/hunting context, you will know there is something special about it. It’s almost a realization that the mere activity you are partaking in is due to that individual. Yet in the same moment, that Veteran is getting something back from the outdoors and hunting that only the outdoors and hunting can provide.
For many veterans around the country suffering from PTSD and other physical and mental tests from the ravages of war, the outdoors is a place where healing occurs. Often, that is tied to participating in an activity like hunting where they are focusing their senses on accomplishing a task and mission, a component that is engrained in who they are. These places release them from the daily grind of dealing with what war has forced upon them, the daily struggles of normalcy and assimilation back into society. It’s essentially an escape. It’s a small respite to recenter, breathe, and forget the things that remind them of who they are. In some instances, it’s a place where healing can occur because of the struggle and the things that test them physically and mentally, reminding them why they decided to become military veterans in the first place. Similarly, these places are for you and me to recenter, breathe, and remember who provided these opportunities for us.