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Wounded warriors talk turkey while hunting wild turkeys

May 03, 2008|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Jim Cramer and Joe Jenkins talked turkey over burgers and hot dogs Friday, something the veteran hunters have not had much opportunity to do in the years since they were wounded in Iraq.

"Peaceful" was how Cramer described his morning on the hunting grounds of Letterkenny Army Depot. "I didn't see any turkey, but I heard them."

"I had fun," said Jenkins, confined to a wheelchair since 2004. "We heard turkeys. We saw turkeys. We just didn't get a shot at them."

Both men were stalking the elusive wild turkeys in the company of other experienced hunters as part of the U.S. Army Wounded Warrior Program.

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Staff Sgt. Cramer, 43, grew up hunting in Oregon, but his last time out was years ago, some time before November 2004.

"We got ambushed and my gun truck was hit by an insurgent with an IED in his truck," Cramer said. The explosion "folded me up like a slice of bologna," blowing him through the wall of the Humvee, he said.

"I lost my driver and my wingman," Cramer said. The driver was 18 and just out of high school, he said.

"He went right from his mom's hands back to his mom's hands," he said.

Cramer suffered fractured vertebrae and a brain injury, but is back home in Lancaster County, Pa. Rebecca, 12, the oldest of his three daughters, joined him for the hunt.

"We were in a firefight and I just happened to get shot," said Jenkins, 40, also a sergeant. That was April 29, 2004, he said.

The U.S. Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2) was formed the next day, according to a Wednesday press release. Created to serve the most severely injured soldiers, AW2 assigns each an advocate to work with them in obtaining the benefits and services they are entitled to or need.

AW2 now assists 2,700 soldiers with disabilities ranging from lost limbs and post-traumatic stress to paralysis and blindness, according to the release.

Jenkins, who lives near Pittsburgh, said this is his second hunting trip since being wounded. On an earlier trip with another organization, he bagged two deer on Maryland's Assateague Island.

"I'm glad we have it," Jenkins said of AW2. "If we didn't, I wouldn't be able to do some of the hunting I've been able to do."

Ray Rakers works at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., and is president of the Michaux Yellow Breeches Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. He got involved with AW2 a year ago when a wounded veteran made an offhand remark to Rakers boss.

The soldier said he missed turkey hunting season back home, Rakers said. The chapter has a program, Wheelin' Sportsmen, that fits right in with helping disabled hunters, he said.

Soldiers who went on those first hunts would return to Walter Reed Army Hospital and tell their buddies, Rakers said. Businesses and clubs have been generous, including discounts on hunting gear and free hotel rooms for this trip, Rakers said.

Jenkins and Cramer were not bothered that they did not bag a turkey the first day out. The two soldiers, retired due to their wounds, said they were eager to try again this morning.

"The worst day of hunting is always better than the best day of working," Cramer said.

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