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Wounded warriors enjoy Virginia weekend deer hunt

By KATIE THISDELL | 
The Free Lance-Star

THORNBURG, Va. (AP) — Matthew Barr's heart is still pounding minutes after shooting his first buck.

As he recalls the kill and prepares to pose for a photo with the deer and his shotgun, reports of another nearby come across the radio. Barr and companion hunter Mark Green swiftly and silently focus on the field of brush. Other hunters, just blaze orange spots in the distance, are likely doing the same thing on the chilly fall morning.

Shots ring out somewhere in the wooded area around Thornburg in Spotsylvania County.

While hunting dogs didn't end up driving that deer toward these two camo-wearing men, the all-day hunt for members of the Mattaponi Hunt Club and 16 guest wounded warriors was deemed a success for its sixth year.

"I haven't felt this adrenaline since combat," Barr said. "Even training doesn't compare."

Generous community donations, meals, a shopping trip at Gander Mountain and overnights in the cabins at the Fredericksburg KOA campground turned the hunt into a full-weekend affair, and a chance for wounded warriors to be outside with fellow service members and become part of a community that cares.

"This isn't about killing deer," said hunt organizer Brian Green. "It's about showing these guys there are people in this country who give a damn about what they're fighting for."

Barr, 29, grew up hunting, but hadn't been out in the woods for most of the 10 years he's been in the Marine Corps. After joining up right out of high school, Staff Sgt. Barr was sent to Iraq for two nine-month deployments and also to Afghanistan. His 130-person company made the first push into Fallujah in the spring of 2004. Seventy-eight men from his unit died, while the rest continued fighting with what seemed like little recognition for the fallen, or thanks from much of America.

"We've been to hell and back multiple times," Barr told hunt club members and many others from Caroline and Spotsylvania counties at a Nov. 23 dinner at the Upper Caroline Volunteer Fire Department.

"To immediately feel like you're part of a family, to immediately be brought in it's an honor and it's humbling. I can't ever thank you enough. Thank you for honoring my brothers," Barr said during an emotional testimony at the end of the night, adding that such activities restore his faith in humanity.

Responded one of the fire chiefs: "The honor is all ours for you to honor us with your presence."

Another warrior shared with the group that his service led to neurological disorders, like narcolepsy and seizures. "Life has just been kind of torn to pieces lately. Just being out there and having some time being in nature, so much healing takes place," he said.

Friendly banter and quips between hunters and warriors, now like brothers, lightened the mood that was at times solemn, such as when the names of the 95 previous warriors who participated in hunts were read aloud.

And of course there were jokes about who shot the most rounds yet didn't make a kill. The 10 or 12 deer that were hit will be processed and distributed to the warriors.

Army Sgt. Jeanie Babcock and her husband, Special Forces Sgt. 1st class William Babcock, traveled from Fort Bragg for a second year in a row for the hunt.

"It's neat to be able to see how they track," said Jeanie Babcock, who liked watching the dogs work.

On Nov. 23, the couple was across the field from Barr, but never saw a deer. While they would have liked to, that's not the main point of the day, she said over the dinner of venison barbecue at the fire station.

"They accommodate everybody's disabilities," said Babcock, who grew up hunting and fishing in rural Washington. Some of the warriors have physical impairments, while others have mental ailments. A Humvee rollover in Iraq left her with neck, back and hand pain, along with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.

She said the cold amplified pain from arthritis throughout her body, but she still had an enjoyable day. Wounded warrior functions are her main type of socialization, for being around others with similar experiences is often easier than being in the general public.

Barr, the Marine who had shot the five-point buck, is now stationed at Marine Corps Base Quantico, with a wife and one little girl, with a second baby on the way.

During the recent hunt, he and Green set up stools alongside one of the well-worn dirt roads in the approximately 2,000-acre piece of land off North Roxbury Mill Road, bounded by the Po and Ni rivers, which is leased and hunted exclusively by the Mattaponi Hunt Club.

Extra layers offered relief from the wind. Bag lunches would give sustenance for the long day ahead. And walkie-talkies connect them with the dozens of others excited about the sport.

Barr tells about how the buck had sprinted across another dirt road, at a full run, about 50 yards away. Four shots took him down. He dragged the maybe 150-pound animal back to his spot and ran his hands through its short hair.

"We'll take that!" hollered Brian Green after pulling his pickup to the edge of the field of brush.

Green, older brother to Barr's companion hunter and son of one of the club's founders, has a deep, impressive knowledge of the terrain. It's evident as he directed hunters and their bird dogs and beagles where to make their next drive to clear out any hiding deer.

They're in there somewhere, and the hunters want them out.

And though the hunt club members weren't doing the shooting on this day, they were just as thrilled, maybe more so, to share their sport with their heroes.

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Information from: The Free Lance-Star, www.fredericksburg.com

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