A little more than two years ago, Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Taylor was transported out of Afghanistan by medevac flight. Expectations were that he would be in a wheelchair for six months.
Two weeks later, Taylor, walking with the use of a cane, went on a turkey hunt.
“Shot that turkey and left the cane in the blind,” Taylor said. “After a few hours somebody asked me where my cane was. I said I didn’t care.”
If there was a miracle involved in Taylor’s healing, he’s convinced it was God working through the HOOAH Program.
That’s an acronym based on the Army’s slang term which is used as an expression of positive response. In the case of the program operated by the Warrior Transition Battalion (WTB) at Fort Campbell, it stands for “Healing Outside Of A Hospital.”
It’s designed to help soldiers recover emotionally from wounds suffered in training or in combat. Taylor is now the coordinator for the program, which arranges events for recovering soldiers such as hunting, fishing, skydiving and other activities.
“When you see the sun come up for the first time after you’ve been shot at, it’s an amazing thing,” Taylor said.
It can be more than amazing – it can be overwhelming, especially for those who have been physically wounded or emotionally traumatized.
The HOOAH Program originated at Fort Campbell in 2007, Taylor said.
“Sgt. 1st Class Ronnie Gilliam had a buddy who was in a wheelchair, who didn’t think he could ever hunt again,” Taylor said. “Sergeant Gilliam made a blind for him [and] helped the guy to go get his first deer.
“The guy shot a deer and healed up better than they expected. He’s been able to do things they thought he could never do ever since then. Since then, we’ve been running.”
He smiled and said, “I’ve got the best job in the Army.”
Gilberstville veteran Leonard Harp has worked as a volunteer for the past four years, helping stage outdoor events that WTB soldiers use for recreational therapy. He’s part of a group that has arranged six hunts for deer and turkey, including one Nov. 15-17 in northern Livingston County.
“This program is three years old,” Harp said. “We started out as a Wounded Warrior program, and that got so big nationally that we had to switch to this new program. The guys down there at Fort Campbell decided to go with the HOOAH Program.”
Taylor and four other Fort Campbell soldiers were on the deer hunt in Livingston County. They all spoke of the value of getting a chance to get away from their routine, each of them using the word “decompress” or a synonym.
Sgt. Marc Clavette is a Tennessee National Guardsman who has been deployed to the Middle East three times.
“On my second tour, I had to shoot a couple people between the ages of 13 and 16,” he said. “It takes a toll on you. It still bothers me. I just go on. It was either my life or their life.”
When he returned, he had trouble adapting.
“There was a thunderstorm, and I went from the couch to the floor,” he said. “My wife said, ‘You all right?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ She said, “Something you’re not telling me?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’
“She said, we’ve got to talk about this.”
Clavette credits the HOOAH Program for helping him sort out some emotional issues that had him contemplating suicide.
That’s not uncommon, Harp said. Taylor tells of a soldier’s wife who told him, “Thank you for saving my husband’s life.”
“One guy had been thinking about committing suicide, and after he went on a hunt, it changed his mind,” Harp said. “He wrote us a nice letter. That really touches your heart.”
Sergeant Brent Carlson was on his third HOOAH trip after two fishing outings at Kentucky Lake and at Wilson Dam in Alabama.
“It gives us a chance to relax, get back outdoors, do things we used to do, feel a little bit more at home,” the Pennsylvania native said.
Being able to share thoughts and feelings with men and women who have had similar experiences helps come to terms with feelings, Carlson said.
Sgt. 1st Class Danny Beatty, a combat engineer with 20-plus years’ service, was hit in the face and head by shrapnel. It caused severe loss of vision in his right eye.
After treatment, he said, “I went through the medical board process and was found fit for duty and was able to stay active.”
But the physical healing, Beatty said, is only “20 to 30 percent” of the ordeal.
“The other 70-80 percent is emotional, spiritual,” he said.
Chief Warrant Officer Greg Moser served three tours in Afghanistan as a helicopter pilot. The Livingston hunt was the second for Moser, a 13-year veteran.
“You kind of leave the Army far behind” on HOOAH events, he said.
The Livingston hunt was hosted by a couple on their farm. Jon and Sandi, who requested their last names not be given, are regular volunteers for such events.
“We really first got involved in this program wanting to give something back to the military,” Sandi said, “and I really find that every time these guys leave, I’m more in debt. They’ve brought so much to our lives.”
Harp, 66, is a combat veteran of Vietnam. When he came home from overseas, there was no such thing as the HOOAH Program.
“We were hated when we came back. These guys are not,” Harp said, but he and other volunteers such as Jon and Sandi work hard to make sure today’s soldiers get the care they need.
Moser expressed his gratitude to the hosts of this month’s hunt.
“Sandi spends so much time putting together amazing meals, it’s like Thanksgiving every night,” he said. “Jon’s been really patient with all of us, showing us the ropes. I’d never hunted before when I came up here, and I’m comfortable going out in the woods and feel pretty confident on my own should I see an animal.
“For me, it’s kind of restored my faith in humanity, just seeing how these people open up their homes to us.”
The recreation, the camaraderie, the break from the military routine and the stress and anxiety of ongoing training and conflict – all of that adds up to an invaluable experience.
“It’s a way to get out and experience life, especially for guys who don’t understand that there’s a civilian community out there that loves us,” Taylor said.