“July 17, 2012. We were just coming up to the end of our deployment and me and my buddies were on a patrol. It was the end of the day and we were just walking home like we’d done a thousand times before. I was walking along and two guys in front of me stepped on the IED as well. I was heavier than them. I set it off.”
— Bo Reichenbach, U.S. Navy SEAL and Billings native, from Skull Bound TV’s “Freedom isn’t Free.”
CASCADE — The day’s last light was beginning to settle across the brush-filled coulee that had been the focus of the small group of hunters perched high atop a neighboring ridge.
For close to five hours, Bo Reichenbach had stayed prone against the cold earth while watching for movement in the valley below.
It was the seventh day of a scheduled six-day elk hunting trip in the Big Belt Mountains and the fatigue had settled deep into each and every one of them.
“But you would have never known it from Bo,” said Jim Kinsey of Florence’s Skull Bound TV. “He never complained. He never once, through it all, said that he wanted to quit.”
For six days, Reichenbach had risen with the rest before daylight to make his way in the dark to the top of a ridge where the hunters would spend the day in hopes of getting close enough to a bull elk for the former U.S. Navy SEAL to take a shot.
Unlike the rest of the hunters, Reichenbach made his way over creeks, through heavy brush and up steep hillsides on a pair of short prostheses attached to what remained of his legs.
The 26-year-old lost both legs in 2012 when he stepped on an improvised exploding device while on patrol in Afghanistan.
While some might have quit after something as traumatic as that, Reichenbach didn’t. He’s been busy rebuilding his life since that fateful day.
Until this year, the Billings native had never been on an elk hunt.
He and his brother grew up playing hockey. They loved that sport enough that their father gave up hunting too when Reichenbach was about 5 to make sure that he didn’t miss seeing his boys out on the ice.
“This was my first elk hunt,” Reichenbach said. “And it was the first time that I have been able to go hunting with my dad. It was pretty special.”
The hunt was set up through Skull Bound TV, with help from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Northern Rockies Outfitters and sponsors of the show including, Vortex Optics, Tenzing Packs and Kryptek Camo. Nosler built Reichenbach a custom rifle with a U.S. Navy SEAL trident etched in the bottom of the floor plate.
While many hunts for the disabled concentrate their efforts on hunting along roads or other places easily accessed, Skull Bound TV host Jana Waller said Reichenbach wanted to experience a full-fledged hard-core elk hunt.
“He told us he was up to any challenge,” Waller said. “Many disabled hunts are from a vehicle. That’s definitely not what he wanted.”
Reichenbach lost both legs above the knee. On the first day, he leaned on Waller and his dad as they attempted to use his robotic full-length prosthetics to cross the rugged ground, but the challenging terrain made that impossible.
From then on, Reichenbach would load up into his track wheelchair for the first leg of the morning’s journey. Once they got within a mile or so of the place they planned to hunt, he would abandon that. From there, he would begin to travel on his short prosthetics while using his hands for balance.
“It’s definitely an arm workout,” Reichenbach said. “You feel it by the end of the day.”
On the few times that he just couldn’t make it the last little bit, Kinsey — a Marine veteran himself — would strap his arms around his neck and carry Reichenbach on his back to the top.
“Ninety-five percent of the mountains he climbed himself,” Kinsey said.
After the first day, when he was forced to turn around, Waller said Reichenbach was determined that wouldn’t happen again.
“You don’t become a SEAL without learning to overcome adversity,” Waller said. “All I can tell you is after that first day, I could tell that he wasn’t going to be forced to come down. He was determined to climb the mountain.
“I would look around at him and see sweat pouring off his face. He’d say: ‘I’ll make it. I’ll get there.’ ”
Every day they saw elk, deer and antelope, but the perfect situation never materialized for Reichenbach to take a bull elk.
“I was pretty exhausted by the seventh day,” Reichenbach said. “It had been kind of nerve wracking, with lots of up and downs. The elk we saw were always just a little too far away. We saw a ton of elk.”
“We also saw a lot of weather,” he remembered. “There were some days with high winds, sleet and cold.”
On the seventh day, they spotted a group of elk – four spikes and one big bull – about three miles away. They watched as the elk entered a coulee and didn’t come out.
It took Reichenbach and the others two and a half hours to make their way to the top of a steep ridge where he’d lie five hours waiting for his chance.
It was getting late when they spotted four spikes on the skyline. There was no way to get to them in time.
But then they noticed the larger bull wasn’t with them.
“We had a meeting on the mountain,” Waller said. “We decided we would stay put and see what happened.”
About a half-hour later, Reichenbach’s dad whispered that he’d just spotted some antlers raking a tree a little over 400 yards away.
“All of us were so excited,” Waller said.
A bull stepped out. And then an even larger 6x5 bull joined him.
As soon as the second bull turned broadside, Reichenbach’s new rifle barked. The bull crumpled to the ground.
“I’m crying,” Waller said. “I look around and I see everyone is crying. Our guide, Jay Pribyl, worked harder than any other guide that we’ve hunted with. He was crying. I heard Bo say, ‘I finally found you.’ ”
Kinsey said he hadn’t seen Reichenbach move as quickly as when he hurried down the hill to see his elk.
“He had worked so hard for it,” Kinsey said. “I’ve never seen anyone work harder.”
Back home in Billings, Reichenbach is still reveling in the experience.
“It meant the world to me,” he said. “Not everyone gets to go elk hunting and then to be able to do that with my dad. Everyone worked so hard. I think it was pretty special for all of us to have it end that way.”
All of that expended effort made the experience even more worthwhile.
“I wanted to work for it right from beginning,” he said. “I wanted to whole experience of an elk hunt. I definitely did not want to use my disability as an excuse.
“There’s always a way to push forward, to figure it out. You’ve got to challenge yourself. That’s what life is all about.
“If you don’t do that – if you don’t face up to the challenge head on – it just doesn’t mean as much in the end.”
Reichenbach’s elk hunting adventure will air on Feb. 11 in Skull Bound TV’s fourth season on The Sportsman Channel.
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