By TRAVIS MORSE
WOODLAWN — Rural Woodlawn resident Tom Gaither opened up his home to a group of recovering soldiers this past weekend as part of a hunting excursion organized by the Healing Outside Of A Hospital program.
HOOAH, based out of Fort Campbell, Ky., is an outdoor recovery initiative that gives wounded Army soldiers the chance to go on hunting and fishing trips to hasten their healing process.
Gaither’s first experience with the program occurred last October, when he served as a cook and guide on one of the HOOAH hunting trips.
During that excursion, Gaither spoke one-on-one with many of the soldiers, who shared their harrowing battle experiences. Hearing the soldiers speak about their service inspired Gaither to get more involved in HOOAH.
“You start hearing guys talk about (going) three days with no food and being under fire almost every day, it makes you realize we think we’ve got it tough,” Gaither said. “Volunteer work is just a way to pay the people back.”
About eight soldiers stayed at Gaither’s home this past weekend for the HOOAH hunt.
Most of these soldiers went on a goose hunt in Marion starting Saturday, and two stayed behind to bow-hunt on Gaither’s property.
In addition to the Fort Campbell HOOAH organization, two other agencies helped coordinate the weekend’s hunt. They included HOOAH Deer Hunt for Heroes and Hero Hunt, Inc.
These organizations are dependent on donations to fund the soldier excursions.
“Basically, what it does is it allows these soldiers to get out of the hospital and get off the base, get off therapy, get out and just enjoy themselves, be kids again, young men,” said Tom Huffington, director of HOOAH Deer Hunt for Heroes. “It really builds confidence in these guys.”
Friday night proved to be a festive atmosphere at Gaither’s house as the soldiers going on the hunt were treated to a meal of barbecued ribs.
Most of the troops in question are members of the Warrior Transition Battalion out of Fort Campbell. This battalion is made up of soldiers whose physical or mental injuries are severe enough they cannot continue their Army career.
The HOOAH trips are a way to help the men transition back into civilian life.
Specialist Ken Hohneck, an Army soldier who took part in that weekend’s hunt, said the HOOAH excursions have great therapeutic value.
“You get together with a bunch of guys that have been in the same situations as you have, as far as being hurt and trying to get back out living a regular life,” Hohneck said. “It just gets you interacting with different people, all different walks of life.”
Sergeant Eric Lieber, who also participated in the hunt, said the hunt itself is actually a small part of the event’s significance. The main benefit is the camaraderie and healing that takes place during the excursion, he said.
“It’s like mental therapy for me,” Lieber said. “It gets me away. I don’t think about my injuries as much when I’m on these trips.”
Staff Sgt. Matthew Taylor coordinates the Fort Campbell HOOAH program. He said the initiative has saved lives by preventing soldiers from committing suicide.
“This year alone, it’s saved 21 lives that I know of for sure,” Taylor said.
Gaither said he plans on hosting additional HOOAH trips in the future.
If you are interested in donating or volunteering for HOOAH, contact Tom Huffington at (309) 830-3313. You can also find more information at the HOOAH Deer Hunt for Heroes and Hero Hunt, Inc., Facebook pages.