Volunteers construct deer stands in preparation for the HOOAH Deer Hunt for Heroes, a deer and bird hunt that organized by a group of McLean, Ill.-area hunters for six wounded Army veterans from Fort Campbell and Fort Knox in Kentucky. The hunt is being funded through contributions of money and services from individuals and businesses.
Volunteers construct deer stands in preparation for the HOOAH Deer Hunt for Heroes, a deer and bird hunt that organized by a group of McLean, Ill.-area hunters for six wounded Army veterans from Fort Campbell and Fort Knox in Kentucky. The hunt is being funded through contributions of money and services from individuals and businesses.

MCLEAN, Ill. — Hunting to feed their family and friends from “God’s grocery store” is part of it. So is enjoying the great outdoors and the breathtaking scenery that the timber tracts and open grasslands of central Illinois have to offer.

So is matching wits and skill against wild creatures whose very instincts are designed for eluding them.

But the main reason that hunters such as Tom Huffington and Matt Graden hunt deer, quail and pheasants can be found sitting on the front porch of the hunting lodge on the land owned by the Sugar Grove Foundation, which operates and owns the Sugar Grove Nature Center and the land surrounding it.

“I’ve killed enough critters in my life that by now more than half of why I hunt is who I spend time doing that with. The actual time spent with family and friends, who you deal with, is more than half of why I hunt,” said Graden, who works for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

“It’s the camaraderie,” said Tom Huffington, who has hunted since he was in his early teens.

It was through their sons hunting that Graden and Huffington got to know each other and became friends. They and a covey of their hunting buddies and volunteers have turned their sights from hunting themselves to creating a very special hunting and outdoor experience for six wounded U.S. Army veterans from Fort Campbell and Fort Knox in Kentucky.

Huffington thought up the idea of offering to bring wounded military veterans to the wildlife-rich timbers and grasslands of central Illinois in early 2013. He saw a show on the Outdoor Channel in which veterans were taken on a hunting trip.

“We’ve talked about doing that before, so this year we sat down and we came up with a plan,” he said.

Planning began in earnest at the end of the bow and gun seasons for deer.

“We decided we were doing to do this, and we sat down and started seriously planning. We put together a plan in January,” Graden said.

Hunting any game, even for experienced hunters who have built up a collection of gear, isn’t cheap, and Huffington and Graden knew that fundraising would be the priority if they were going to make their plan a reality.

They originally thought about taking two veterans, but after communicating with other groups who had put together similar events, Huffington was directed to the HOOAH Program at Fort Campbell.

HOOAH stands for Healing Outside Of A Hospital. The program seeks to place wounded and ill veterans into outdoor activities in conjunction with the Warrior Transition Battalion.

The program was founded in 2007. The goal is that the outdoor, off-base activities will help the veterans in rehabilitating physically and mentally.

“They choose the individuals to make sure it’s safe for the veterans, it’s safe for us and our volunteers and it matches the needs of the veteran,” Huffington said. “The veterans work with the military doctors and medical staff to make sure the activities will be good for them.”

Huffington and Graden said helping the veterans heal in mind, spirit and body is just one goal for the Sugar Grove hunt.

“The hunt really is a small aspect of it. It’s getting these guys out of the hospital or medical setting, taking their minds off the treatment they’re going through, helping them build their confidence through the recovery process and also reminding the civilian community and the public that we have a large number of young men and women coming back from overseas who are permanently damaged as a result of their service to our country,” Graden said.

Jeff Gaither, a hunting friend of Huffington and Graden, agreed. Gaither is one of the volunteers who has assisted throughout the process and will be helping the veterans at the hunt.

“This is going to be a lot more than just taking them hunting. That’s a part of it. We want to show them the camaraderie, and we want to show them that they are appreciated,” he said.

Six veterans were chosen to participate in the Sugar Grove hunt, which will take place Nov. 6 through Nov. 11 and culminates on Nov. 10 in the invitation-only Hero Banquet at which the veterans and the volunteers and donors will be recognized.

After the plan for the hunt was in place and the contact with the HOOAH Program made, raising funds to put on the hunting and outdoors experience of a lifetime for their military guests became the top priority.

The goal of the fundraising is to cover every possible expense, excluding purchases of souvenirs or other items the veterans may want to make, for the veterans, from the time they pull out of the bases until the time, five days later, when they return.

“Basically, we want this to be an all-inclusive hunt for them. From the time they leave the base to the time they get home, they should not have to spend a penny out of pocket for anything related to the hunt,” Huffington said.

The five-day event will include both a put-and-take quail and pheasant hunt at a local private preserve, a wingshooting contest and the deer hunting on the land owned by the Sugar Grove Foundation. The foundation board gave its permission for the hunt to take place on its land.

The McLean County Sportsmen’s Association stepped up immediately to assist with a donation, making them a one-third sponsor of the hunt. Other local businesses also have stepped up, including Bloomington Meats, which is donating the processing for any of the game that the veterans harvest.

The fundraising also has to cover all the equipment that will be needed, from hunting clothes, such as camouflage big overalls and jackets and boots to equipment such as flashlights, to ammunition for the bird hunt and wingshooting clinic.

Meals have to be donated or paid for, and that includes feeding not only the veterans, but the volunteer guides that will accompany them. All the guides, hunting friends of Huffington and Graden, are volunteering their time.

Raising enough money to cover every possible expense has been and continues to be the biggest challenge.

“We’ve put everything into this hunt that we truly love about hunting,” Huffington said.

“We could do it for less, but we want it to be the experience of a lifetime for them,” Graden added.

Donations of goods and funds continue to come in, but more is needed, Graden and Huffington said.

The program has been supported by donations of goods and services from near and far — TenPoint Crossbows in Ohio has donated the use of several crossbows and is sending someone out to provide technical assistance during the hunt.

The DoubleTree Hilton Hotel in Bloomington has donated rooms for the veterans for their last night in the area and the use of a reception room for the Hero Banquet. The Hero Banquet was one of the items that, prior to the DoubleTree donation, might have been on the budget’s chopping block.

“We believe wrapping this up with the banquet is critical. It lends legitimacy to our program. If we just bring them out here for three days, hunt with them and then send them home, it doesn’t speak to the socialization aspect that HOOAH likes to have, and the banquet also allows the public and the people who have supported us to see the program, to meet the veterans and see what we’re doing and, hopefully, to continue to support the program and gain more support for it in the future,” Graden said.

Preparing for the veterans also means making adjustments for newcomers who may not possess any hunting skills or knowledge. The required hunter safety course is being administered to the veterans and their alternates at the bases.

“HOOAH is not a program for hunters. It’s a program for healing, so when the selection process happens, they may send us someone who has never hunted,” Graden said. “To offset that, we will have experienced guides. These are our friends who are volunteering, but who are all experienced hunters. They will all be in two-person stands that are large enough to accommodate 500 pounds.”

Those stands also have accommodations so the veterans who need to stand up and stretch due to their injuries have the room to do that. Hendren Sport Center in Gridley has donated the use of Polaris ATVs to transport the veterans and guides to the tree stands.

“We also will have adaptive situations like ground blinds, which are enclosed shelters with steps up to them for anyone who might need those,” Huffington said. “We will make any accommodations that we need to in order to make this work for the veterans.”

Both Huffington and Graden and their friends are active with the youth hunts in the area, and they say that will help them in teaching novice adult hunters the basics of successful deer harvesting.

“Our youth hunts will help us the most because we’re used to working with the kids and educating them on when to stand up, when not to stand up, when to move, when not to move and things like that,” Huffington said.

They also are seeking professional taxidermists to donate the mounting of the deer and birds that the veterans harvest. Those trophies will serve a special purpose once the veterans go back to their base and continue to deal with their injuries.

“The reason we want to get them their deer mounts is because if they get feeling down, they can look at that and it can bring up that good time and those memories and what they are able to do. That’s our theory behind wanting to make sure we have the deer mounts for them,” Huffington said.

He joked that for him, Graden and their volunteers, fellow hunters such as Gaither, planning and preparation for the hunt has been “like having two or three wives and two or three houses.”

“We’ve spent at least 50 to 60 hours a week from January up through now, fundraising and setting stuff up,” he said.

But the journey to this hunt has been made easier by the same people who are one of the main reasons that Huffington and Graden hunt.

“We’ve just been lucky. We’ve had a lot of good people helping us,” Huffington said.

Items still needed for the hunt include: heavy-duty cots; lawn chairs/bag chairs; DVD player; TV; hunting videos; new hunting apparel including camo bibs, jackets, boots; shotgun shells/trap and pheasant loads; soda or baked goods; new hunting items and/or gift cards to be given to the veterans; prepaid gas cards; gas grill; air mattresses; blankets; pillows; propane generator.

The hunt is part of a nonprofit 501(c)3, and receipts for tax purposes can be provided upon request.

To volunteer or make a donation, call Huffington at (309) 830-3313 or Graden at (309) 846-9781 or email sugargroveherodeerhunt@aol.com.

The hunt information is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pages/Sugar-Grove-Nature-Center-and-HOOAH-Deer-Hunt-For-Heroes.