Kansas Hunting Trips Help Aid Soldiers Recently Returned From Deployment

For the third consecutive hunting season, Fort Riley has sent 20 to 30 10-person groups to Ringneck Ranch, a shooting preserve about 80 miles northwest of Salina. The groups contain about five officers or non-commissioned officers and five junior enlisted soldiers, many of whom have recently returned from their first deployment.

The experience is designed to open levels of communication between soldiers and to help build relationships with officers, who are often seen as unapproachable by their subordinates while on duty. The hunt brings them all to the same level and let's them interact in ways that would normally be difficult or impossible. It also offers the special attention some may need to work through the possible problems of merging back into society after deployment.

From this story in the Bellingham Herald:
_During four deployments, Sgt. Maj. Dave Santos led men in often-violent areas of Iraq and Afghanistan. Last week, he led men in the peaceful setting of Kansas' Smoky Hills in a far different environment.

"I'm just Dave on this hunt," he told a gathering of 10 Fort Riley soldiers that included several privates. "Out here we're equals. It's important you understand that we're on a level playing field while we're here."

..."It's designed to open levels of communications between the soldiers, to build relationships," Santos said. "When we're at work, we're often seen as unapproachable by the men. This is to let them know who we really are, to give them somebody to talk to. A lot of soldiers need that."
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_To encourage mentoring, Santos and his peers paired with lesser-ranked soldiers. Together they shot clay targets their first afternoon at the ranch and shared rooms for two nights.

By day, the program sees the soldiers following guides and bird dogs in fields well-stocked with pheasants.

The idea for the hunt came from a 2007 sportsman's banquet and gathering in, of all places, Iraq.

Command Sgt. Maj. Jim Champagne and others there got the idea of mentoring hunts when they saw brochures for a Ringneck Ranch hunt to be raffled.

He already knew many Fort Riley soldiers were interested in the outdoors. Champagne, who has taken several mentoring groups to the ranch, said the military often tries to find ways to get soldiers away from Fort Riley and into the Kansas countryside.

"The outdoors is one of the best things Kansas has to offer and we want them to take advantage of that," he said.

Soldiers have gone on fishing, canoeing and other outdoors adventures, too. Soldiers are selected by their superiors based on a variety of criteria. Some make the trip because they show particular promise for an extended military career. Others are selected because some special attention might help them work through possible problems. Santos said soldiers just returning from first deployments sometimes struggle emotionally with merging back into society.

That's when chances are highest for a variety of problems, including alcohol, drug abuse and suicide.

"It's important they know they are important and have people who can help," Santos said.

Traditional protocol seemed to be in the air during a Sunday afternoon trip to the target range, but gradually melted after they went afield the next morning.

Champagne said the program utilizes the shooting preserve's ability to stock birds and offer seasons and limits above state limitations - ensuring soldiers plenty of action.

"It's important to get them into birds, for them to share in feeling that rush of adrenalin," he said. "That gives them a connection with the others right away."

Minutes into Monday morning's hunt, pheasants started flying. Several sergeants passed up opportunities to give a lower-ranked enlisted man a chance.

Laughter was common, as were congratulations and good-natured ribbings amid the ranks. Champagne said the trips are the first hunting experience for some soldiers and the first time afield since their long months of deployment for those who were once avid sportsmen. He said watching the bird dogs working scent, pointing and retrieving always draw accolades from the soldiers.

Within Santos' group, it was the first time shooting a shotgun or hunting for Spc. Justin Hartmann, a south Florida native.

It was the first bird hunt in several years for Pfc. Jared Smothers, who grew up training wide-ranging quail dogs with his father.

"It was worth the trip for me just to see bird dogs working again," he said. "I've really missed that."_