Retired sergeant Mike Hulsey said he was planning on killing himself when the phone rang.
When he answered, Ronnie Gullion was on the other end. He had an invitation for Hulsey to last year’s Wounded Warrior duck hunt in Ware.
It was the call that may have saved Hulsey’s life.
He decided to go, and the time he spent with fellow veterans on the hunt turned around his depression, he said.
He said he had been suffering since his forced retirement from the Army after wounds from a gunshot and a roadside bomb. They were scars he carried home with him after three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. A cane helps him get around now, but it was the healing in the duck blind that helped with the emotional trauma, he said.
“I found myself. I felt healthy,” Hulsey said.
Similar stories weren’t hard to find at the third annual Wounded Warrior duck hunt Saturday at the Grassy Lake Hunting Club in Ware.
Hulsey was one of 15 veterans who took part in the event, which brought together veterans, hunting guides, members of the public and old friends at the club’s lodge and hunting grounds.
The event — hosted by the club and SIU in conjunction with Fort Campbell’s Healing Outside of a Hospital program, or HOOAH — spanned two days. The wounded warriors were also given a reception at SIU’s home basketball game Friday, where 10 World War II veterans joined them.
Saluki Athletics event organizer Steve Sowers said Friday’s reception was a show of patriotic appreciation for the veterans’ service.
“They’re sacrificing their time and selves for everyone else,” he said.
But the atmosphere down in the duck blinds Saturday was markedly more laid back than the reception’s. After gathering at the club’s lodge, vets were driven in truckloads out to the repurposed fuel tanks buried in club owners Gereld and Collin Cain’s cornfield. The tanks, about the size of baseball dugouts, provided a place for the veterans to try to keep warm in the chill January air, look out for ducks and, most importantly, spend time with each other.
“We just sit down here and talk. We don’t care if we shoot a duck,” retired captain Matt Moser said.
Moser — along with his father Steve and Hulsey, Gullion, Perry Thorington, Adam Peacock, Sean Bennett and guide Duane “Dago” Smith — spent the afternoon in pit 18 of Grassy Lake’s grounds.
The men only had three ducks at the end of the day, but under the thatched cornstalk roof of the blind and in air thick with vapor breath and cigarette smoke, they had more luck with verbal sparring than with hunting.
Gullion said the spirit of camaraderie the wounded veterans build while on the hunt is much like that on the battlefield.
“This is now our foxhole and we’re fighting a different battle, and that battle is to feel normal again,” he said.
Gullion, a retired sergeant first class and founder of the HOOAH program, said events such as these, which he organizes as an outreach coordinator with the Wounded Warrior Project, are therapeutic for soldiers who find themselves back at home with physical and mental scars.
When Gullion came back home from Iraq with a combat-related illness, he’d spend his days in the house, not doing anything.
“I didn’t care if I lived or died,” he said.
That changed one day when he reluctantly went with some friends on a hunting trip.
After spending time with friends and opening up, he found himself wanting to live again and went back to work at Fort Campbell to do something for his brothers in arms at home if he couldn’t go back to Iraq.
It was there he founded HOOAH to help other veterans who were in the situation he found himself in when he returned home, he said.
He said while his illness has him feeling bad every day, his work with Wounded Warriors has given him a purpose.
“It’s totally encompassed my life,” he said.
And when he’s out on the hunt with other veterans, he can escape from the pain of his illness.
“Once the ducks start flying and we start shooting, I forget I’m sick,” he said.
He calls the process of vets opening up to each other and others and telling their stories on these hunting trips camouflage therapy because the soldiers heal while wearing their camo and without realizing it.
Sgt. 1st Class Perry Thorington said camouflage therapy works, and since attending the hunts he’s come to terms with his situation.
After an IED exploded five feet from his face and sent him flying 20 yards through the air, he was left with a spinal injury and a blinded left eye, he said. Shrapnel from the explosion still falls out of his nose sometimes, he said.
No matter how much he wanted to return to Iraq, his injuries disqualified him, which is what anguished him the most, he said.
“I was depressed, pissed off at the world,” he said.
He tried normal therapy, but his civilian therapist had no way of imagining what he’d been through, he said. But hunting with fellow soldiers gave him a chance to open up to others who’d seen what he’d seen, he said, and he was able to at least begin the healing process.
“You don’t really get over all of it, but it helps you deal with it a lot better,” he said.
Hulsey said Saturday’s hunt was the first event he’s told his story at.
Going on the trips has given him a new perspective on life and taught him to appreciate the important things in life, he said.
“If it weren’t for this program I would not be here today,” he said.
Isaac Smith contributed to this report.