Healing through hunting

Sgt. Gabe Martinez hunts on the Mountain Sky Guest Ranch in the Paradise Valley last month. Due to a the loss of his legs when an IED exploded underneath him in Afghanistan on Thanksgiving Day in 2010, Martinez was one of the first recipients of a donated big game license, which allowed the Colorado resident to hunt in Montana.

Montana Outfitters and Guides Association

HELENA — Two Marines from two eras who share one tragic common bond — the loss of limbs in battle — forged a lifelong friendship in the mountains of the Paradise Valley last week.

They met through the kindness of strangers under a new program created by the 2013 Legislature, through which people can donate a hunting license for combat-wounded veterans who are awarded Purple Hearts and have a 70 percent or greater disability rating.

“We’re trying to help with the healing process,” said Hank Worsech, the licensing bureau chief for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “In this case, we had two men from two different wars; one from the Vietnam War who was never recognized for his sacrifice, and one from the war in Afghanistan who came home and was hailed as a hero.”

Sgt. Gabriel Martinez and Cpl. Donald “Buck” Honold are polar opposites yet brothers in arms. Martinez, 25, is from Colorado with a 1-year-old daughter. He married his wife, Kayla, in July 2010 and deployed to Afghanistan in October 2010. One month later, on Thanksgiving Day, an improvised explosive device took both of his legs.

“The day I lost my legs, by no means was I thinking I would go out and kick some ass. I thought my life as I knew it was over,” Martinez said. “I thought I would be the most despondent person ever. That I couldn’t drive, couldn’t walk, couldn’t do anything. I pictured myself as being this vegetable.”

A photograph shows him lying in his hospital bed with Kayla. She wears a wide grin, grateful to have her husband home alive. He, too, is smiling, but his eyes look haunted as he ponders a future without legs.

Martinez’s pity party didn’t last long, however. While in the hospital, he saw an amputee walk past with car keys in his hands, which gave him hope. Since then, Martinez has taken up rock climbing, whitewater rafting and hunting. He’s training for the Paralympics, participated in the military’s Warrior Games and after the Boston Marathon bombing, he flew to the city — on his own dime — to show the victims that they can accomplish amazing feats.

“Boston was a pivotal point in my life, going to the hospital and seeing the other amputees,” Martinez said. “I went to Boston to pay it forward. I wanted them to see me in my element, living life with two prostheses. I wanted them to know it’s not the end of the world and they would be OK.”

Honold, 71, hails from Wisconsin. He and his wife, Sharon, raised two children who are in their 30s now and the entire family has hunted big game for decades. Honold was a sniper in Vietnam and an original member of the “Walking Dead” 1st Battalion, which sustained the highest casualty rate in Marine Corps history. He was shot 28 times, lost his lower right leg in 1966 and was hospitalized for almost a year.

“When I got home I made a promise to myself that my injuries weren’t going to change me,” Honold said. “I was a meat cutter before I went in, and when I came out I got my own meat shop in Milwaukee. Carrying quarters of beef was hard on my leg, but I was young and my leg wasn’t going to hold me back.”

Mac Minard, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, said he heard that when Honold returned from Vietnam he elected not to wear his uniform because he would get spit upon.

“He lost his leg and for crying out loud, people would kick his crutch out from under him,” Minard said.

With the hindsight of almost 45 years with one real leg and one prosthetic leg, Honold makes light of his injuries. In an application letter for one of the Purple Heart hunting licenses, he noted that while he has an artificial leg he “gets around pretty well for a 71-year-old with 28 holes in him.”

He was excited to learn he was selected for the trip, which was financed in part by the Montana Outfitters and Guide’s Big Hearts under the Big Sky program.

“I was packed two or three weeks ahead of time,” Honold said. “Everything I thought I needed I would throw in the corner of the garage. I brought everything and didn’t need half of it. My wife took less stuff than I did — that’ll never happen again.”

At the ranch

The Martinez and Honold families’ met at the Mountain Sky Guest Ranch, an 8,000-acre high-end resort south of Chico Hot Springs. Usually, the ranch charges around $15,000 for a family of four for a week. The cost of the lodging and meals, however, was covered by the ranch’s charitable foundation, which was started by ranch owner Arthur Blank, who also co-founded Home Depot and owns the Atlanta Falcons football team.

“We were contacted by Rob Arnaud, an outfitter in Bozeman, who knew we had a philanthropy arm for our business,” said Yancey Arteburn, the ranch’s general manager. “He said they had this opportunity and wondered if we were interested. We said, ‘Absolutely.’”

As soon as the two veterans shook hands, Honold said the years slipped away and they were just two guys who wanted to go hunting.

“I know there’s quite a difference in age for the two of us, but that didn’t make any difference in this trip,” Honold said. “We seemed to just hit it off.”

Jenn Johnson, who helped coordinate the trip through MOGA, said she took them out that first afternoon to sight in their rifles, and she could sense they had a deep connection.

“By dinner, for an outsider to walk in, it was like those guys had known each other for years,” said Johnson, who also is a Marine. “It wasn’t like a father/son relationship, but a band of brothers — and sisters — and it was really hard to tell where the generations were separate.”

Minard said it was important for the men’s wives also to be at the ranch. While neither of them raised their hands to swear an oath of service to their country, they made a lifelong commitment to their wounded warriors when they returned.

“Both of them were honored as part of this program, as well,” Minard said. “They were given handmade quilts, symbolic of the families being the centerpiece of the fabric of the American culture. They are the threads that hold the family together.”

The hunt

The first morning, the hunters rose before daybreak but didn’t have any luck. The next day, their guides from the Montana Hunting Company took the two men to opposite sides of a mountain, and Honold knocked down a bull. However, it got back up and walked away before he could get to it.

Meanwhile, Martinez heard the shots and patiently waited. He saw the elk come around a corner, but they were spooked and he couldn’t get a good shot because they were about 1,000 yards away.

They hiked closer through what Martinez joked was the “path of most resistance” and spotted a 5-by-5 bull. With only sagebrush for cover, they dropped to the ground and crawled closer. That’s when the hunt got a little goofy.

“I plopped down and this blue pollen from the sage poofed up. We’re choking, coughing and trying to be as quiet as possible; luckily we were lying down so they could not see us, but they were looking all around,” Martinez said.

They crawled to a different bush and finally Martinez saw his kill shot. He took it.

“We were about 225, 250 yards away and it was a perfect shot, right where I wanted it to be,” Martinez said. “The bull stood there and the cows ran off.”

Martinez chambered another bullet and took a second shot with his 300 Weatherby.

“My Weatherby should have dropped the bull with one round,” he said. “I was wondering if I wasn’t hitting him as perfectly as I thought I was.”

So he squeezed off shot number three. Nothing. Then shot number four.

“In my sight he’s been shot right through the lungs. The last two shots were 100 percent solid shots,” he said.

So they decided to wait, and after 10 minutes the elk slowly dropped to the ground. As Martinez and his guide reached the elk, they realized that each shot was a kill shot.

“But there was a tree that was right next to him, so we think he basically died but the tree was holding him in the standing position,” Martinez said, laughing. “There was a nice, tight group of four holes in this elk and you could see on the tree where the fur and blood brushed down the tree.

“It was probably the biggest five-point bull I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Honold believes it’s the same bull he took a shot at earlier that day.

“I think it walked around the corner and Gabe shot it,” Honold said. “So it was kind of a good thing; in a way we shared that elk.”

Aftermath

As part of the Big Hearts under the Big Sky program, MOGA covered the cost of processing the elk as well as getting it mounted for Martinez.

Worsech said that since the Purple Heart program began this year, 110 big game, upland bird and migratory bird licenses have been donated for disabled veterans to use. Yet because it hasn’t been heavily advertised and they’ve had a few administrative glitches, only six licenses have been used so far.

“We got the word out a little late to get people signed up and since it was a new bill we had to get the infrastructure in place,” Worsech said.

The licenses go into a pool, so people can’t know if theirs has been used but they can still get tax credit. The law also says FWP can’t designate who gets the licenses; instead, groups like MOGA can find people who qualify and try to coordinate with the state.

By Friday, Minard already had heard from about half a dozen people who also might qualify for the program, and they’re trying to get additional hunts arranged before the season ends.

“We are looking for that person who is on the path to recovery, who maybe has medical or mental health issues, but in space and time that connection with the family, in an outdoor environment, can offer therapeutic benefits from what we provide,” Minard said. “The catch and harvest is less important than the fellowship.”

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