By John Balch
“Getting people in to the woods, out in nature has a healing power second to none. Believe me,” said Louisiana native John Nolan, Jr., as he took in a sunny Saturday at Lake Greeson and joined other squirrel hunters for lunch.
Nolan was at the lake as part of the recent Lake Greeson Hero Hunt, a weekend squirrel hunt he helped coordinate with the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lake Greeson Field Office. Nolan and three other WWP soldiers, two retired veterans, several volunteers and Corps personnel participated in the hunt, which yielded 27 squirrels.
“Absolute healing,” added Nolan.
Nolan, who is retired from the U.S. Air Force after 20 years of service, has coordinated many “warrior hunts” through his work with Patriots Alumni and Louisiana Sportsmen (PALS) and the Northeast Louisiana Veterans Association. The therapeutic values of the hunts, he said, are immeasurable – both physical and mental.
“Some people experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder differently,” Nolan explained. “It can involve sleep patterns, interaction with humans, jobs, it goes on and on. But putting someone under a canopy of trees, walking through the woods, fixes that.”
The morning hunt had been somewhat physically demanding for Matt Hackler, a 30-year-old Marine tank gunner from Sterlington, La., who was critically injured on Jan. 7, 2006 while on patrol in Iraq. His tank driver was killed when an improvised explosive device (IED) hit the tank. Hackler’s heel was broken and his hip was shattered. He was told, then, that he possibly would never walk again or could be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his days.
“I’ve walked more in the last couple of years, just being stubborn, being a Marine,” Hackler said, a little sore and stiff but thankful to be outside on a warm January day for his second warrior hunt.
“Being outside gets my mind off things I don’t want to think about all the time.”
During the lunch break, Hackler spent most of his time with his new puppy, Minion, a service dog in-training that had to stay back at the motel during the hunt. The dog has a calming effect on Hackler’s PTSD that was obvious as the day’s lunch crowd grew bigger and the Bear Creek Boys played music under the porch of the Kirby Landing Motel.
“He’s something else to take my mind off things,” Hackler said as he scratched Minion’s head.
Joining Nolan and Hackler on the hunt were WWP soldiers David Santiago, a Marine who also served in the Army Reserves and Sean Crow, an U.S. Army soldier. Santiago is originally from Louisiana but now resides in Fort Worth, Texas, and Crow is from West Monroe, La., hometown of the Duck Dynasty family, who recently made a $18,000 donation to the warrior hunts’ coffers.
The two retired veterans and volunteers along for the hunt were Roy Ashworth (Arkansas National Guard) of El Dorado and James D. Parker, a longtime volunteer Lake Greeson campground host. Parker was a Ranger in the Army and has served as the State Commander for Disabled Veterans. He has assisted in the past with hunts for the mobility impaired held annually at the lake.
“(Parker) is always asking what he can do to help. He’s a very benevolent person, although he retired, he is still serving his country. He is a hero,” according to Marty Reynolds of the Lake Greeson Field Office, who helped coordinate the hunt with Gary Lammer, USACE Supervisory Natural Resource Specialist.
The hunters also got an assist during the weekend from squirrel-hunting dogs raised by Lake Greeson Parker Ranger Dan Funderburk and his dad, Mike. Also assisting were USACE employees Ranay Floyd, David Bradford, Shannon Herrin, Tammy Fant, Kenneth Forga, James Pedron, Eric Jenkins, David Ross, Robin Lammers and Brent Strawn, a maintenance mechanic who served in Desert Shield/Desert Storm as a member of the Marine Corps.
Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Wildlife officers Chesley Sigman and Ronnie White also provided a safety briefing for all the hunters prior to the hunt.
Nolan said WWP picked up the tab for the motel rooms and mileage. Meals were provided and prepared by the Lake Greeson Field Office personnel with donations from local businesses and the Lake Greeson Sportsmen’s Alliance.
“I’m still in awe, this place is just so beautiful,” said Nolan, who was accompanied on the trip by his teenage son, Joseph. He was already thinking about coming back and how he could involve more soldiers.
“The more opportunities I put in front of them, the more people jump on them and the better everybody gets,” Nolan said.