When Vietnam War veteran Terrance Racine talks about his weekend in Riverton, Wyo., as a part of the Hunting With Heroes program in September, he can't help but get a little emotional.
He remembers returning to his northern Minnesota hometown after the war and not being able to find work. He still remembers the way people looked at him when he moved to Wisconsin, knowing he was a veteran of what was an unpopular war.
Four days and a trophy hunt in Wyoming in the middle of September made all those bad memories float away.
"After spending time with those guys, it was like those 40 years were made up for in four days," said Racine, a Hermosa resident. "All the thanks that I didn’t get, I got. That’s what that group does, they make you feel so appreciated."
Hunting With Heroes is a nonprofit organization founded in Wyoming in 2013 by Dan Currah and Colton Sasser. Currah served in Vietnam and Sasser was injured in action while serving in Afghanistan.
The program works with the Wyoming Game and Parks Commission, as well as ranchers, to provide free-of-charge trophy hunts of antelope, bighorn sheep or deer to disabled veterans who quality as 50 percent or more disabled.
Wyoming GPC has a program where hunters can donate any big game license to be used by a disabled hunter, whether the hunter is a Wyoming resident or not. The organization has six chapters: Casper, Cheyenne, Thermopolis, Big Piney, Lysite and Riverton.
Other than the gas it would take to get to one of the sites, there is no cost to the veteran to participate, as food, lodging and equipment is provided. Anyone eligible must write an essay about why they want to take part in the trophy hunt, and from there applicants are picked. Racine was one of 26 applicants to be picked out of a pool of 160 for the September antelope hunt.
Racine said he learned about the program while eating at Blaze Pizza in Rapid City. A rancher from Gillette saw him wearing his 'Vietnam Veteran' hat and asked him if he served and if he was disabled.
Constant exposure to Agent Orange (a herbicide that was used by the United States during the Vietnam War) had caused Racine to suffer a heart attack and undergo a quadruple bypass in 2009. He was unable to work as an accountant in Wisconsin after the surgery, so he qualified as 100 percent disabled.
Racine wrote an essay about the lack of recognition he and fellow veterans had received in other places he'd lived, and how the climate in Western South Dakota was different and more people appreciated him. He was picked and made the 360 mile drive to Riverton on Sept. 14.
He was expecting to hunt for a day or two, receive a few 'thank-yous' and be on his way. The reception he got was not what he was expecting.
"I’ve never had anyone treat me like that. Around here I get the thanks, and I do take it for real, but then I wonder sometimes if it’s just because I’m wearing a cap," he said. "Out there I had an 8-year-old kid come up and make me a little poster thanking me for my service, at 8 years old. The whole community out there is so appreciative."
Hunting with Heroes paid for Racine's motel room Thursday night and breakfast the next morning. It was the dinner that night, after checking out the guns they would be using and the place they would be staying, when Racine realized this wasn't just another hunting trip.
Darin Coyle, who runs the Riverton chapter, got up to say a few words to the veterans. Racine had heard 'thank you for your service," a million times before, but this time it sounded different.
"It’s one thing when someone comes up and thanks you for your service, and you don’t know if they’re doing it a la mode, or if they really mean it in their heart," he said. "These people, the first night said, ‘We love you, we’re going to give you thanks, when you leave here, we’re going to really show you that we care about you guys.'"
That is exactly what they did. Racine and the other veterans were showered with gifts, such as an honor quilt that Racine said might be worth $1,000 because of the quality (knitted by locals in Riverton, a skinning knife, special hunting knife, a padded gun case, hats, shirts and metallic door stickers.
The biggest gift, however, was that it gave some of the veterans who had been so haunted by the demons of war a chance to open up, and potentially heal.
"I’ve seen guys out there were quiet and reserved like I was years ago, and they didn’t want to talk about the war or anything after the war," Racine said. "The whole goal of these guides is to get these guys to open up and say ‘It’s OK that you went through Vietnam, and it’s OK that you did what you did.’ And by Sunday morning, some of these guys just became so talkative and opened up."
That is the best part of the job, according to Coyle.
"It seems like the Vietnam veterans are the most appreciative of the service because they got treated the worst when they got back," he said. "It’s so overwhelming, I told my wife during the summer, during the week leading up and the week after I cry more than I have in 30 years.
"It’s so cool to know you’re a tiny part of something that is helping these people, second to marrying my wife and having my kids, it’s the best thing I’ve ever been a part of."
Racine didn't just leave with the love and affection of a grateful group of people, he was also able to snag an antelope during the hunt.
It wasn't easy. Racine missed a buck from about 430 yards away early in the morning, but with the help of some volunteers, was able to get one later in the afternoon from what he said was 287 yards away.
"The volunteers kept encouraging me when I shot and the animal disappeared. I was disappointed, but then I look around, and everyone is jumping up and down," Racine said. He thought he had missed the buck but had actually hit it with the perfect shot.
"I was in tears. It was such a joyous moment for me. To think that those guys would go through those extremes to do that," he said.
The goal of the volunteers is for every veteran who participates in the hunt to get an animal, but Racine and Coyle will be the first to tell someone that the main goal has nothing to do with shooting an animal.
It's about not just saying 'Thank you' because someone thinks that's what they're supposed to do, but saying 'thank you' because they care.
"You can go to counseling, and you can go to all that stuff, but it isn’t the same as being with friends you trust and can talk with," Racine said. "It’s so much more than a thank-you. They’re letting these guys know that they really care about them."
Any veteran of any war that is interested in participating and qualifies as more than 50 percent disabled may email email@example.com (Coyle's email) or call Coyle at 307-851-1634.
More information can also be found at huntingwithheroes.org.