Despite 12 months in war-torn Iraq, with mortars and rockets periodically crashing down around him, soldier Gabe Timp of Cottage Grove didn't mind the gunshots echoing across the fields in Prior Lake last weekend. "This is awesome," Timp said with a grin as he hunted pheasants on a crisp, sun-splashed morning with his dad, Gary, himself a Vietnam War veteran, at the Minnesota Horse and Hunt Club. Also toting a 12-gauge with them was Justin Moen of White Bear Lake, another Iraq veteran who could be heading to Afghanistan.
They were among nearly 50 Minnesota military veterans who were treated to a free guided pheasant hunt, hot lunch and a clay pigeon shoot Saturday.
"This is our way to say thank you for serving our country," organizer Stacy Dvorak told the group before they went afield with volunteer guides and their dogs. "You guys have sacrificed a lot, and missed out on hunting seasons," she said, choking back her emotions. "So this is our thank you."
Dvorak, 35, of Shakopee, is an avid hunter and executive board member of the Scott County Chapter of Pheasants Forever. She spearheaded the idea for Operation: Upland Pheasant Hunt.
"It's something I've thought of doing for a while," she said. "It's long overdue. People forget why our soldiers are over there doing what they are doing. Some of them feel they've been forgotten."
They weren't forgotten Saturday.
Dvorak's chapter quickly jumped on board, and about 45 volunteers came out of the woodwork to help. Other groups and companies helped pay the costs. Originally the idea was to restrict the event to Scott County veterans, but Dvorak eventually expanded it to include all Minnesotans who had returned from deployment in the past two years. Word quickly circulated via e-mail.
"My phone rang off the hook for four days,'' she said, with more than 200 calls. She quickly filled the 50 positions and was forced to turn others away.
A special hunt
Gabe Timp, 39, is a 20-year Army veteran who returned from Iraq seven months ago. He also served in Desert Storm, the first Iraq war. His dad, Gary, 63, a Vietnam War veteran, was allowed to join him Saturday.
"I think 1997 was the last time we hunted together," said Gabe, who grew up in southwestern Minnesota. "Then I went on active duty and joined the Guard and haven't had time since."
He worked in helicopter maintenance in Iraq.
"We never saw any bullets coming in, but there were plenty of mortars and rockets. We had one come in and land right in a trailer next door. It didn't go off, it just sat there smoking."
Fear wasn't so much the issue, he said.
"You get used to the mortars. After a while it's like someone honking a horn at you." But there's the stress. "It wears you down," he said.
Moen, 25, was paired with them, and his dad, Scott, also of White Bear Lake, accompanied the group as an observer.
Justin has been in the infantry six years, and just re-enlisted for three more. "This is what I was born to do," he said.
Dad and son hunt waterfowl, deer and pheasants together. "I missed out on a few seasons there," Justin said. "But we're back on the horse now."
The veterans hunted under a cobalt sky in the waning days of March, the ground still frozen and frost-covered, with three birds put out per hunter. Three volunteer guides -- Greg Fryar of Elko, Rob Enedy of Hampton and Bob Ullrich of Apple Valley -- accompanied the group and handled three hunting dogs.
The first ringneck of the morning flushed from a patch of thick grass, and Gabe dropped it with one shot.
Moments later, near the edge of a frozen pond, a rooster rose, shimmering in the sun, and flew east, offering all three shooters a clear shot. Justin's 12-gauge connected.
"It's a good thing I had these guys covering me," Gary quipped.
But he downed the next bird that took flight.
Later, Gabe walked atop a ridge when another pheasant flushed. He got off two errant shots, but forgot to pump his shotgun and didn't get a third shot.
"You don't have to do that with an M-16," he said grinning.
It's hard to tell who was more appreciative of the event, the veterans or the volunteers. By 11 a.m., the threesome had bagged a dozen birds.
"Oh, this is fun," Justin told his guides. "Thank you guys so much."
Said Enedy: "This is nothing. We appreciate what you've done."
Gabe said the outing rekindled his desire to hunt. He's already planning a fishing trip with his dad to Lake of the Woods, and will join him next fall hunting.
"I haven't smiled this much in a long time," he said.
Dvorak stood outside near the sporting clays course as the veterans returned to the clubhouse for lunch. Many thanked her profusely.
"This is just great,'' said Nick Downs, 31, of Duluth, a member of the Air Force 148th Fighter Wing in Duluth. "You guys are awesome. A thousand thank yous."
After lunch and shooting sporting clays, the veterans were sent packing with cleaned, frozen pheasants -- and hugs from Dvorak.
"Without a doubt, it's going to happen again next year," she said.
Doug Smith • email@example.com