CAMP RIPLEY – Great things happen every day in this country, sometimes in not-so-obvious places.
In a blind on this expansive military training center on a recent early morning, Samantha “Sam” Hunter issued hen turkey yelps to what she hoped was a love-struck gobbler perched in a near-distant tree.
This was early, before the morning’s full light gathered atop the deep snow that encircled the blind. But not before Hunter, 35, and Randy Falknor, 61, and his adult son, Will — an observer on this day — set a couple of decoys in front of their blind.
And not before Randy, in his motorized wheelchair, was positioned so he could accurately align his shotgun at the tom turkey, should it strut within range.
“That turkey knows we’re here now,’’ Hunter said, quieting her call. “Let’s see if he comes.’’
Elsewhere on Camp Ripley, similar dramas were unfolding, as about 32 veterans, many with scars from their years of military service, and each accompanied by volunteer guides, huddled in the chilled pre-dawn, waiting for trigger-squeezing opportunities.
Consummately wary as they are, few turkeys would fall to shotgun volleys that morning. But to the hunters, if not the guides, that outcome would be largely inconsequential. The victory for these veterans, some dating to service in World War II, was in the opportunity.
“With the limitations some of these veterans have, Camp Ripley allows them to get into the field in a safe, controlled environment,’’ said Dennis Erie, an employee of the St. Cloud VA Health Care System and chief organizer of the event at the 53,000-acre military training facility near Little Falls in central Minnesota.
Said the elder Falknor, of Sauk Rapids: “I’ve always been an avid shooter but not a particularly avid hunter. But since my disabilities set in, and I’ve had the opportunity to hunt, I’ve really grown to love it. It’s kind of a proclamation of freedom.’’
The turkey hunt is one of various sporting outings held annually at Camp Ripley for veterans and active service members. Each requires considerable funding, much of which is donated by Legion, VFW and Disabled American Veterans clubs. The National Wild Turkey Federation also is a player, as is, among others, the St. Cloud VA medical center.
Critical to this mix are volunteers, and Hunter, a Department of Natural Resources conservation officer who was at the Camp Ripley hunt on her own time, is among those who each year raises a hand.
“My dad was in the military, his dad was in the military and two of my brothers were in the military,’’ she said. “This is my way of honoring everyone who has served.’’
A Marine for four years, Falknor signed up for the National Guard after being discharged and later served 10 years of active duty in the Army. In 2004, he suffered a debilitating stroke. Now he’s in a wheelchair, his left arm doesn’t work very well and he’s legally blind in one eye.
He and Hunter met eight years ago when she was assigned to guide him at Ripley.
“When I first heard the name ‘Sam Hunter,’ I thought, ‘Oh, great, I got a butt-crack plumber for a guide,’ ’’ Falknor said, laughing. “But we’ve been friends ever since. And I got a turkey that first year with her.’’
Passionate about the field sports, Hunter has trekked widely chasing turkeys and other game. This fall, for example, she’ll be in Alaska, hunting sheep.
But she has an equal interest in helping people with physical challenges, and she regularly volunteers with Midwest Outdoors Unlimited (MOU), a group whose mission is just that.
Through MOU, she guided Falknor on a successful elk hunt recently at a high-fence operation in northern Minnesota.
“When Sam takes me hunting, I refer to it as ‘the blonde leading the blind,’ ’’ Falknor said.
Maybe. But Erie, the hunt organizer, is thankful every day not only for the service of veterans but also for those who happily give their time and share their expertise at Camp Ripley each fall to bring gobblers close to hunters’ blinds.
That didn’t happen the other morning for Hunter and Falknor, who nonetheless, along with Will Falknor, passed the morning in good cheer, happy enough just to be on site.
“When you have a stroke or other illness,’’ Randy Falknor said, “there’s a tendency to pull in and not push yourself. That’s the strength of these outings. They push you and get you out with like-minded people. They keep you energized.
“These people, all of them here, are fabulous.’’