ROCHESTER, Minn. — Tom McLaughlin sat shotgun in a Polaris ATV with his blaze orange jacket, 870 Remington shotgun and wooden walking stick while he was driven out to his hunting blind on the far southeast side of Chester Woods Park.
Through miles of winding trails, the low roar of the ATV was seemingly the only noise in the freshly snowy park — except for the occasional gunshot.
The 71-year-old disabled Vietnam veteran was one of 41 hunters in this year's Disabled American Veterans Hunt.
"This is a unique situation," McLaughlin told the Post-Bulletin . "This is really a benefit to disabled veterans who don't have a chance to go out and hunt, if not at Chester Woods."
Once a year for the past seven years, the park is closed down for veterans and their dependents to hunt whitetail deer. A perfect pairing, the park's trails create greater accessibility for the veterans, who in turn help control the deer population in a management hunt.
While his son sets up his own tree stand, McLaughlin — who, in Vietnam, was shot multiple times and lost his left leg — hunts in a ground blind with a heater (and snacks) in an area that allows him to walk around in the woods to his own abilities.
He's harvested one deer throughout his now four hunts, but he said it's really not about the deer at the end of the day.
"This gives me, being a veteran and having a son who's a combat veteran, the opportunity for us to get out and do something together that we don't always have the chance to do with my limitations," he said. "This way, 'Dad' gets to go along, and he gets to spend time with his son.
"We have that common bond of combat, and now we have this thing that we can go out and bond even more."
That level of access and camaraderie is what Chester Woods park manager Tom Eckdahl said is the whole point of the hunt.
"It's about the desire to want to give back, it isn't about killing deer," Eckdahl said, although that aspect is helpful, too. "It's been just a highlight for us."
Each year, Chester Woods staff, volunteers and local businesses provide blinds, stands, heaters, clothing and more for the veterans. There's even two track chairs for those in wheelchairs or with limited mobility. They also have people who help in the field, prepare meals throughout the day and even butcher any harvested deer.
Eckdahl said this is all put together to provide the best, accessible experience possible, even for those not familiar with hunting.
"The veterans are students of the firearm, but they're not all students of the hunt," he said. "We're wanting to teach something, and we're at their beck and call."
Iraq veteran Leah Langdon said she appreciates that high level of help and commitment.
"I think that a lot of people don't realize or understand how much goes into it," Langdon said. "They really do a lot to make sure that everyone will be able to come out here with their different ability levels. Literally, all you have to do is show up, they take care of everything for you, and I think that's something that's been really amazing and has helped a lot of people come back."
The now 33-year-old graduate student from Mapleton said she always looks forward to the hunt — being the only weekend she takes off all year.
"There's just something about sitting out in the woods by yourself, and if it weren't for this, I probably wouldn't have the opportunity to otherwise," she said. "I love the staff and a lot of the hunters are repeat hunters, so it's almost like we have our own little hunting family now."
According to their turnout statistics, that "family" has grown quite large: One year, they had a veteran who had served in each of the conflicts from World War II to present day; The veterans' disabilities range from muscular/skeletal problems and amputated limbs to those with hearing loss and mental health issues; They've even had vets travel from out of state from places such as Delaware and Florida.
Eckdahl said this has become one of the top hunts in the state, alongside other hunts in places like Mankato and Camp Ripley. But he said that success simply wouldn't happen without all of the dozens of people involved.
"We really want to thank our commissioners and the list of 60-plus businesses and organizations," he said. "With their blessing and approval, it's allowed us to continue this event."
With their help and the continued interest and enjoyment from veterans in the area, he said there's no end in sight for the Disabled American Veterans Hunt at Chester Woods Park.
"This isn't going to go away, unless we get shut down," Eckdahl said.
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Post-Bulletin.