'Hunts for Warriors' heals the soul
When you sit shoulder-to-shoulder with any man for two straight days, you learn a lot about him without even trying too hard. But spend two days with a man who carries life-long injuries incurred in battle and you will learn more than you would ever imagine about yourself and the freedom you enjoy.
Led by the folks with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Tennessee Valley Chapter of Safari Club International, twenty-five lucky guides got to do just that. We spent two days this week, each of us in the company of a combat-wounded veteran, on a special deer hunt at the Enterprise South Nature Park.
It was Monday evening as 1st Sgt. (Ret.) Pablo Cadena and I watched several deer feed in a thick tangle of kudzu vines 80 yards away. Because of a small hill Cadena had to crawl from our blind to try and get in better position for a shot.
"My heart was pounding," said Cadena with a smile. "I was especially thinking that I didn't want to miss. If the other guys find out you shot and missed, they can be ruthless. It gets ugly. It's fun, but it's ugly."
Cadena didn't miss. But the deer didn't drop in its tracks. Still relatively new to deer hunting, Cadena learned a new lesson.
"Definitely the tracking, learning how to follow a blood trail and taking it slow," he said.
But at the end of the blood trail Cadena had his buck, one of sixteen deer the twenty-five hunters took in two days.
IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT THE HUNT
For these wounded warriors, however, the hunting is often secondary to sharing time with other soldiers who have walked in their boots.
"The toughest thing for me on leaving the military was giving up the camaraderie and the brotherhood you have with your fellow soldiers," said Cadena. "Now you see someone wearing a Vietnam hat or even a World War II hat, it's easy to start up a conversation because we have that common ground. Even if you've never met the guy before it can be something as simple as saying, 'I hope you're having a good day brother.' It's something that is hard for us to explain."
Some veterans are reticent to share details of their days at war. Not so for Cadena. It was 2008 in the Afghanistan province of Wadak. On his third combat deployment, Cadena led a platoon of about 40 men with an objective to secure a highway when they were ambushed.
Not far into the firefight Cadena and one of his men had to come out of their armored vehicle, under fire, to secure more ammo for the gunner in the turret. As he and his fellow soldier were about to re-enter the vehicle a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) slammed home in between them. Cadena's left knee was destroyed by the blast. The other man was even more seriously hurt with severe burns and a collapsed lung.
Fellow soldiers immediately provided cover fire and administered first aid, but the platoon stayed under fire for at least forty minutes before reinforcements and medical aid arrived.
"My men gave them some payback but our vehicle caught fire and burned to the ground. I have hit & miss memories of everything that happened but my guys took such good care of me I do remember joking with the medic in the evac chopper. He was kind of yelling at me, 'Are you okay.' I just remember grabbing him by the collar, looking directly at him and saying, 'Hey, where's the hot chicks? This is [expletive deleted]!' The medic laughed and said, 'I'll see what I can do for you next flight."
The next few months and even years were tough, especially when the Army asked him to leave. Cadena fought back and stayed in, but he had to give up his assignment to a 101st Airborne Infantry Battalion.
"It didn't matter to me where I got assigned because once you're infantry, you'll always be infantry," he said.
Finally in 2014, after 22 years of service to his country, problems with his knee forced him to tell the Army goodbye for good. He said it was hard, but there was a silver lining.
"Some soldiers look at the day of their injury as the worst day of their life," said Cadena. "I look back at it as one of the better days of my life. At the time I was dating a really great woman. If I hadn't been injured I would have never realized what an amazing woman I have who still puts up with me today and will until I'm old and cantankerous."
Now he says he is loving life with his wife, Charlene, and spending time with his two kids.
Every guide leaves the "Hunts for Warriors" with tales of the hunt, but especially tales of the soldiers they met.
Guide Chris Sanders said, "I came out of the experience with more than I expected. I made a new friend and plan on hunting with my warrior again."
Guide Raymond Reed said, “It was a great experience, not only the time spent with my warrior but also getting to volunteer with a group of selfless guys who gave their time."
TWRA provides an immense amount of manpower organizing and executing the "Hunts for Warriors," while the Tennessee Valley SCI spends thousands of dollars to feed and house the soldiers the military selects from all across the region. Wildlife students from Cleveland State Community College assist with deer handling while Rogers Taxidermy & Deer Processing donates all processing for the deer that are taken. Of course the hunt provides venison for the veteran’s freezers, but Cadena says it does much more.
"There are a lot of the guys who are angry," he said. "But at these these hunts, after spending time with our brothers, we all go back to life with our batteries recharged. It really heals the soul."