James Jordan sweats as he trudges through the brush, up the steep slope toward the top of a rocky plateau. The bleached, fall sun has warmed the chilly morning, and Jordan has already shed one layer. The hillside is neither as steep nor as high as the terrain he climbed in Afghanistan, and the ground here is sandy without the loose shale. The small pack strapped on his back weighs nothing compared with the 125-pound load he humped as a paratrooper.
“We had deer sign all over this area earlier this morning,” Jordan said.
He clambers over some boulders at the top and steps on a trail leading toward the trees across the grassy plateau. Nearby, fellow veteran Mike Alsop has taken up a position on the cliff and is watching four deer in a stand of trees just outside the property line of the Boy Scout Ranch in Elbert County where the men are hunting. He sights-in the small herd at 263 yards but knows not to take the shot.
The hunt at the ranch was one of three separate hunts over the weekend of Oct. 24 and 25 sponsored by American Heroes in Action, a nonprofit group supporting wounded combat veterans along with firefighters and law enforcement officers injured in the line of duty. The series of outdoor adventures were designed to bring these men and women together for outdoor therapy.
With the help of District 1 County Commissioner Robert Rowland and Casey Westbrook of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Division, the nonprofit group secured permission for three separate hunts on private property over the weekend. Each hunter was licensed with a tag appropriate for the area, and American Heroes in Action reimbursed the cost of the tags.
Dave Proffit, president and founder of American Heroes in Action, said that the value of bringing veterans together for outdoor adventures goes well beyond just hunting and fishing.
“They learn things being together here, other than the lies they tell each other about hunting and fishing,” he joked. “They learn from each other about the benefits available and treatments that will help them get better, what works.”
Each of the three veteran hunters received serious wounds during the first years of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Jordan was wounded by 23 fragments of shrapnel when his interpreter stepped on a mine during a mission in Afghanistan. Following his treatment, he received a medical retirement and is studying sports management.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Alsop was a student at the University of Colorado. By that afternoon, he was on the phone with a recruiter. He served in the infantry and later joined a recon unit until a roadside bomb blew his Humvee in half. In addition to extensive trauma, 13 of his vertebrae were shattered.
One of the doctors who treated Alsop attributed his survival to his extreme physical fitness. The muscle mass in his back held the pieces of his spine in place and prevented them from severing his spinal cord.
“The only part they got from me was my spleen,” Alsop joked.
Both Jordan and Alsop suffered traumatic brain injuries and continue treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Henderson served as a Marine and was wounded in the first week of the Iraq War and a second time a month after returning to duty. He re-enlisted and served the Corps for eight years.
Following his service, Henderson worked for a military contractor and later as a cable installer. He said that he misses the sense of family he experienced in the military and among his fellow contractors, most of whom were veterans.
He is studying intelligence at American Military University and hopes to serve as an analyst. His search for a greater sense of camaraderie was part of his motivation for signing up for the hunt.
An hour before sunset, three deer emerge from a stand of trees just south of where Nathan Henderson, who is big-game hunting for the first time, watches from his position near the lake. Henderson's single shot fells one of the animals and drives the remaining two deer north where Jordan and Alsop are waiting. Jordan's shots claim the second deer of the afternoon.