Jackson County Hunting Heroes provides veterans with the opportunity to spend time with other veterans in a setting that enables them to be themselves with those who know and understand what they have gone through.
Parchment Valley was home to the JCHH this past week for their sixth annual hunt. Twenty veterans from as far away as Maryland, participated in the hunting experience.
“We provide the hunters with a hunting license, lodging, meals, a guide, meat cutting service, and a weapon to use,” Tom Reynolds said. “All the people administering and participating as guides, meat cutters, cooks, etc. are volunteers.”
Wayne Casto, 74 years old from Charles Town, West Virginia, was one of the veterans who participated this year. Casto was in the Army for six years and has two purple hearts. This was his third year attending the JCHH event.
In April of this year, Casto broke his hip and he recently had surgery to repair some of the damage. He was afraid he would not be able to make it to the hunt, but with the assistance of his cane and a guide, he was able to not only attend, but he shot an eight-point buck and a doe.
Three years ago Casto had the privilege of attending his first hunt. He recalls not knowing what to expect.
“As a veteran, you hold back not knowing what to think, but I was taken to the hospital and introduced a man, John Mellinger, who at the time he was bed ridden with ALS. Here he was in this condition yet he was so full of life. He talked to me about the hunt and he asked to pray the soldiers prayer with me,” Casto said. “It was then that I realized how special the JCHH was to veterans and I decided then that it was where I wanted to be.”
With the assistance of guides and any equipment that may be needed to cover the terrain, veterans get the chance to be free in nature. They are able to feel as though they are a part of something bigger than any illness or disabilities they may have.
“This is a healing process for us veterans. Just this week, I was able to counsel two younger veteran hunters in my cabin. I shared with them and they felt led to share with me. There is nothing greater than getting that time to be with other vets who have gone through similar situations and understand how life after the military can be. Again, it is a healing process and we are happy to know we are not alone,” Casto said. “JCHH is a great organization, all the volunteers are great and I wouldn’t miss this for anything.”
In 2017, the JCHH accepted their first female hunter. Jennifer Overbey, an Air Force veteran with 10 plus years of service, joined the hunt.
Overbey learned of the hunt through the veterans organization while attending college at Sheppard University. She decided it sounded like something she would like to do, so she sent in the form and when the time came, she took the five and a half hour drive from Maryland, where she is in the Air National Guard, to Parchment Valley Conference Center in Ripley.
“I was welcomed right away, they didn’t treat me any different just because I was a woman,” Overbey said.
That year she was the first woman to attend and within the first few days of the hunt, was also the first person to get a deer. She received a knife as her reward for getting the first one of the week.
“It was a great experience just to be with other vets and hang out getting to hear their stories while sharing my own,” Overbey said. “I was hooked and having meat to take back home to share with my friends and family was just a perk.”
One more female joined the hunt this year, making it two.
Heather Zuniga, a 22 year Army veteran, joined Overbey for the 2018 hunt as the second woman to have attended the event. As a first year hunter, she was also blessed to have shot the first deer of the week.
“I had a great time and look forward to next year,” Zuniga said.
Tom Cunningham, Commander of the Disabled American Veterans Capital City Chapter 3 out of Columbus, Ohio has attended the event from day one.
Cunningham, a 24 year Army vet and proud Mountaineer, having graduated from West Virginia University in Morgantown, feels honored to be a part of the JCHH. His organization has helped provide the hunters with items they need to have a successful experience.
From installing a chair lift at Parchment Valley to assist veterans in climbing the stairs to the “Heroes’ Hall” to providing mobility scooters for veterans to use while on the grounds, he has always been there to make sure they have anything they need.
“This experience is something that these vets look forward to. It helps them feel like they belong and we will do whatever it takes to make sure they get to do everything they can,” Cunningham said.
Another way Cunningham gives back is by making homemade ice cream for the dinners they have at the end of each hunt.
“I enjoy doing this for them, I make many different flavors. At the end of the week, it is my treat to them,” Cunningham said.
It takes a community to make the JCHH event a success.
Students from the culinary school at the Roane-Jackson Techinical Center along with their “chef,” and teacher, Clarence Canterbury, prepare the meals for the hunters during the week.
The FFA chapter from Ripley High School handles the meat the hunters bring in. From skinning the deer to cutting, preparing, and packaging the meat, they volunteer their services to help those who through their service have helped them.
Vo-Ag teachers, John Kessel and Craig Canterbury, bring in students each year to assist with the event that allows the veteran hunters to enjoy their experience while reaping the rewards of their hunt. Also assisting the FFA students is the Jackson County Extension Agent, John David.
With David’s help, the students have mastered the entire meat process. From start to finish, they can have the meat ready, packaged, and placed into coolers in 22 minutes.
Lexi Knopp, Vice-President of the Ripley FFA, has participated in the meat processing for the JCHH for three years.
“This a good way to give back to the community. The veterans love to see the young people getting out and doing this for them. They get to share their stories with us and we get to do something for them that they may not be able to do,” Knopp said.
Johnathan Carter Taylor has also been processing deer for the JCHH for three years. He feels this program is unlike any other community service projected he has worked on.
“These men and women have served our country for most of their lives then come home, sometimes wounded to the point they can’t get out anymore. This program allows them to get out and do things again,” Taylor said. “To be able to process their deer through the FFA may be the greatest thing I have ever participated in.”