For Chad Sackett, growing up first in Alaska, then in rural Minnesota, fall hunts were an annual affair -- ducks with his buddies, deer with his extended family.

But his sojourns to the woods were greatly limited when the full-time member of Minnesota's 34th Red Bull Infantry Division was deployed to the Gulf War in 1991. With subsequent training commitments and an additional deployment, this time to Iraq, he figures he has missed five or six hunting seasons.

So the 43-year-old Forest Lake man was happy about the chance he got to be in the field with a shotgun again Sunday in Hugo at a welcome-home hunt organized by two hunting buddies who wanted newly returned vets to make up some lost hunting time. Most of the vets hailed from Washington and Ramsey counties.

Wild Wings of Oneka Hunt Club threw open its fields and sporting clay courses for almost 100 newly returned members of the 34th Infantry Division, with the cost of the hunt and game dinner for each soldier covered by sportsmen and women from across the east-metro area. Hugo public works employees, for example, chipped in.

"They came up with a $20 bill here and a $10 bill there to come up with $200 to sponsor a soldier," said Chuck Haas of Hugo, a City Council member who dreamed up and pulled off the idea with his hunting buddy, Washington County parks manager Mike Polehna of Stillwater. Both are active in their cities' yellow-ribbon efforts to provide support to returning veterans.

As best Haas can recall, he and Polehna were grousing about the lousy hunting weather one dreary day last fall when one of them noted that troops overseas were missing the fall hunting season entirely.

Honoring memories

Sackett particularly appreciated the chance to recover a lost hunt. The father of three had planned his 15-day leave from Iraq to coincide with the annual gathering of his family members who hunt near Nevis, Minn., where he grew up. But his father's terminal cancer progressed so quickly that he was forced to change plans, and he missed that hunt.

The 12-gauge shotgun he carried Sunday stood out. Its wooden butt was scratched and chipped. Although he has a newer gun, he carried the old one for sentimental reasons: It dates to the 1960s, when his father bought it at a Coast to Coast store.

"It means more to me, coming from him," he said. People have suggested he refinish the stock, but he likes it just the way it is.

Despite weather that ripened from a soggy morning to a glorious afternoon, the day was bittersweet for some.

One was Dan Rathman of Excelsior. For him, the day brought memories of those he once spent in the field with his nephew, James Wertish, in pursuit of pheasant, ducks and turkeys. He had taken Wertish hunting since he was about 12. "Not having boys myself, that was real special," he said.

Wertish, 20, of Olivia, didn't make it back from Iraq. He was one of three Minnesota National Guardsmen killed in a missile attack in July in Basra.

"This was tough," Rathman said, his voice cracking. "This was really tough, just that I spent so much time out hunting with him. But that's reality, I guess.

"He was a great kid," he added. "He was proud to serve his country."

'Absolutely tickled to be here'

The vets spent half their day hunting pheasant, Chucker partridge and quail in the rolling cornfields and half of it on the club's sporting clays course.

The latter is described as golf with a shotgun. Groups of shooters hike through the oak woods between stations where they snipe at targets flung over wetlands and ponds in varying combinations.

"I can say the same thing everyone else says -- it's humbling," Sackett said midway through the course. "I'd feel worse if I'd shot more. I'm just here to have fun."

But he gradually got his shooting eye in a group of five shooters who chafed each other good-naturedly. "That's the duck hunting coming back," Barry Mathwig of Savage, a May returnee, told Sackett after he nailed a difficult overhead shot.

Sackett also bagged four birds during the morning hunt.

Of course, shooting as geese were headed north and ice was melting was new for many of the hunters. "I think if you're an outdoorsman, it doesn't really matter," said John Tomlin of Forest Lake, who guided the group through the shooting course. "There's still the sights and sounds."

"They've just been absolutely tickled to be here," said Major Gen. Rick Nash, commander of the Red Bulls, who praised the efforts of volunteers and the sponsors of the shoot who covered costs. "It says a lot about the Minnesota spirit."

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438