By TRAVIS MORSE
WOODLAWN — — To Sgt. First Class Luke Hortenstine of the U.S. Army, the HOOAH Deer Hunt for Heroes program offers a vital source of mental healing for wounded soldiers.
Hortenstine has been on multiple hunts and fishing trips through the program, and said the camaraderie he's experienced has helped him greatly in his own healing process.
“It's important in so many facets (of) helping soldiers,” Hortenstine said. “For myself, mentally, it brought me back. … Having them guys around and just showing you that people care and the camaraderie that they invite you like family up there, that's the mental healing that we really get from it.”
Hortenstine was the guest speaker Saturday at a special fundraiser held for the HOOAH Deer Hunt for Heroes program at Woodlawn Christian Church.
HOOAH stands for Healing Outside Of A Hospital. The program gives wounded Army soldiers the chance to go on hunting and fishing trips to enjoy camaraderie and hasten their healing process.
The fundraising goal for Saturday's event was set at $5,000. Money raised will help pay for a planned HOOAH hunting trip in Jefferson County this October.
At the event, ticket holders enjoyed a meal of barbecue pork or grilled chicken, along with baked beans, coleslaw, chips and dessert. There was also a silent auction featuring a wide variety of items.
Tom Gaither of rural Woodlawn, a HOOAH volunteer, estimated that more than 100 people received meals Saturday. That includes people who ate at the church, as well as those who had pre-sold meals or carry-out orders.
Gaither said he has been overwhelmed by the support HOOAH has received from area businesses and residents.
Prior to the event, Gaither went around to local businesses and asked for either cash donations or items for the silent auction. No one refused his request, he said.
“Probably the most amazing thing is how many people have donated,” Gaither said. “I had absolutely nobody tell me no when I went in and asked for a donation, not one.”
After lunch Saturday, members of the Heartland Young Marines group performed a color guard presentation. Then, Hortenstine took the stage to talk about his experiences with the HOOAH program.
Hortenstine is currently stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., as part of the Warrior Transition Battalion. Most of the soldiers who take part in HOOAH hunts belong to this battalion.
When Hortenstine returned from Afghanistan, he was diagnosed with a terminal illness, after which he fell into a deep depression.
However, after getting involved with the HOOAH program, Hortenstine said he now has a more positive outlook.
“The mental healing is the big thing, I think, that soldiers get out of this,” Hortenstine said.
Although Hortenstine enjoys hunting, he said the most important part of the hunting trips is getting to relax and talk to his fellow soldiers who have had similar experiences.
“Talking to these guys makes me feel so much better,” Hortenstine said.
Tom Huffington, founder of HOOAH Deer Hunt for Heroes, said the soldiers who go on these hunts form strong friendships, and a support system is created whereby they can call each other if they need to talk.
“You just open up that network of communication and people you can call and get help if you need it,” Huffington said.
Also at Saturday's event, checks were presented to the HOOAH program from Jefferson Wayne County Voiture 346 and the Mt. Vernon Marine Corps Ball. A video was also shown about the program.
Firm numbers were not available regarding how much the fundraiser brought in. However, Gaither said he felt confident organizers had reached their goal.
For more information, visit the HOOAH Deer Hunt for Heroes Facebook page.