Matthew Brown of Perry County (pictured) was a hunter before he joined the Marines.
But Brown didn’t shoot a deer until after a sniper shot him in Fallujah, Iraq.
The gunshot wound to Brown’s upper left leg put the young lance corporal in National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
There he was introduced to the Wounded Warriors program, which takes disabled veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan on hunting trips as a form of therapy.
“There’s more to therapy than just the physical. ... There’s therapy for the emotions, for the mind, for your spirit,” said Jeremiah Catlin, an Army chaplain based in San Antonio.
Catlin knows. He’s a wounded warrior, too.
Catlin and Brown havehigh praise for the work of Ed Fisher of Lewisberry.
Fisher and his brother, Lew, have created a program at their hunting camp in Potter County that is fast becoming one of the premier Wounded Warrior destinations in the country.
The LEEK Hunting Preserve is named after the men and their wives: Lew, Ed, Elaine and Kate.
It’s been a family venture from the beginning.
The Fisher brothers hunted with their dad in Potter and Tioga counties all their lives.
“My fondest memories are hunting with dad,” Ed said. “I remember the joy of it ... if we didn’t manage to score any game, at least we were out in the field. You learn a lot about yourself.”
Ed and Lew — after long careers in the Army and the Coast Guard, respectively — bought a hunting camp of their own just before their dad died in 2005. They buried him in an old cemetery on the property, so he could always be in the hunting ground he loved.
Then they put the camp to a use their father would be proud of: hosting young disabled veterans.
Their dad had lost a legwhen he was a boy, but the handicap didn’t stop him from hunting or from teaching his boys about the outdoors and about overcoming setbacks.
“I thought every dad had a wooden leg,” Ed said. “I never saw anything my father couldn’t do.”
In the fall of 2007, six wounded veterans from Walter Reed Army Medical Center arrived at camp. Three of them were in wheelchairs. Ed and Lew lifted the young men onto their backs and carried them up the stairs of the camp to the dining and sleeping quarters.
The soldiers settled in for an extended weekend of hunting.
Young men with no legs soon realized they could get out into the woods, up into a stand and, if they were lucky, bring home venison.
They also received a heroes welcome whenever they went into local towns.
“When the people in Potter County realized what we were doing, it was amazing, the outpouring of support,” Ed said.
Local churches joined the effort, donating food. Local businesses joined, donating equipment. Local hunters joined, donating their time and skill as guides. Local landowners joined, donating use of their property.
Wounded soldiers at LEEK have free ranging through more than 8,000 acres of prime deer habitat.
Ed and Lew have transformed the camp into a hunting preserve geared toward wounded veterans. It is now a 501(c)3 nonprofit with a website: www.leekpreserve.org.
With a donation from ConocoPhillips, they have renovated another building on the property to serve as a barracks that is fully accessible to those with disabilities.
In October, they dedicated it to a local boy, Jason Dunham, who threw himself onto a grenade in Iraq to save his fellow soldiers. He is the first Marine since Vietnam to earn the Medal of Honor.
They’ve expanded the hunting at LEEK to include spring turkey and fall pheasant. There’s also fishing along the Oswayo headwaters and in their stocked pond.
They plan to build a larger barracks so soldiers can bring their families if they choose.
Joining the hunt often has been a rite of passage into the tribe, into the privileges and responsibilities of adulthood, into the mysteries of death and life.
For wounded warriors in Potter County, it’s a rite of passage back into a normal life.
Catlin said the organizers of some wounded warrior programs are stunned by the extent of the injuries.
“People look in shock and awe at the injuries; they can’t take their eyes off,” he said. “They’re just being real people. They have a genuine heart for this and want to help, but when the actual sight is in front of them, they can’t handle it. It can overwhelm
That’s not the case at the Fisher’s camp in Potter County.
“There are so many military people at LEEK, they’re not overwhelmed by it,” Catlin said. “They’re treating you as the person you are.”
That fosters a true hunting-camp atmosphere.
Hosts and soldiers alike tell off-color jokes.
“You can just see everybody pulls together,” Catlin said. “Little jokes, picking on somebody ... and what I’ve noticed is you feel like a real person at that point.”
“That’s the piece I see every time I go there,” he said.
Catlin organizes Wounded Warrior excursions around the country for other soldiers now. He has made the trip from San Antonio to Potter County four times since his first hunt because he has become the official chaplain and videographer for the
Fishers’ LEEK program.
“It’s good hunting, I won’t lie,” Catlin said. “But the success of the place — what really makes it — is the impact on the soldiers.”
“The whole county pools behind that organization to support just you, and it makes an impact far greater than any hunt,” he said. “Some guys are almost in tears. I don’t see that on a lot of those I go to. ... I do this for warriors all across the nation.”
At LEEK, “Spiritually, emotionally and mentally, you get fully recharged. ... It’s real therapy,” Catlin said.
“We don’t tell them what they can’t do; they’ve heard that too much. ... I love helping them, but it also helps me,” Ed Fisher said.
“It’s all about moments in life, doing something for somebody else.”
Matthew Brown said he’s been afraid to go into the woods by himself since Iraq.
If he fell, he might not be able to get back up, and no one would know exactly where he was.
“The only way I feel comfortable,” he said, is with someone else along.
He said his experience at LEEK was “downright amazing.”
“People will go out of their way to help you up there,” he said. “They’re just great people.”
“It’s a very healing thing to go out and realize the world doesn’t have to be loud and mean,” he said. “You’re in God’s country: beautiful, clean air, quiet.”
Brown hunted pheasant. He ate “amazing home-cooked meals.” He bonded with other veterans.
And he shot his first deer.
Thursday, December 2, 2010
The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa.:
Posted by BA Haller at 2:56 PM