ARKANSAS CITY – For the third straight year, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the national organization Freedom Defender Outdoors were able to provide a special weekend of modern gun deer hunting and bonding for disabled veterans. Five veterans were invited to a permit deer hunt at the Freddie Black Choctaw Island Wildlife Management Area West Unit the weekend of Oct. 25-27.
“It turned out really good,” Mark Hooks, an AGFC biologist supervisor based in Monticello, who helped put on the event with several other AGFC Wildlife Division employees. “One of the guys killed a pretty good deer the first morning.”
In all, four deer were harvested over the two hunting days – each veteran could have taken three deer total, only of one which could be a buck. The first deer, taken by Michol Jordan of Tulsa, Okla., just after Saturday morning’s rain stopped around noontime, was a 10-point that weighed 230 pounds and had a 22-inch inside spread. “Yeah, I’d say that’s a good one,” Hooks said.
Jarred Cartwright of Freedom Defenders Outdoors, an active serviceman and native of Arkansas (and son of a onetime AGFC employee), has organized the hunts for the past three years with the assistance of the AGFC and many sponsors. Four of this year’s hunters – including one from Little Rock and three from other states – and other guests of the event were housed for the weekend at the Delta Resort and Lodge, about 16 miles north of Arkansas City and 6 miles north of McGehee. Another hunter brought his own RV and stayed at the West Unit. Everyone convened at the Choctaw Island West Unit for a Friday night barbecue dinner and fellowship.
JD Neely represented the seven-member Commission at the event Friday night. Hooks and several other area employees of the AGFC were on hand, as well as Terry Thompson of the National Wild Turkey Federation and the owners of Dirty South, a clothing company based in Paragrould.
“This Veteran Hunt in my home state of Arkansas will always be nearest and dearest to my heart,” Cartwright, a U.S. Army Sergeant First Class, told the group. “Being a soldier, still today there is not enough awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder, which affects soldiers across this country. It’s the little things that can make the biggest impact or difference in a veteran.”
As Cartwright went around the room of the work house at the West Unit, many of the attendees became emotional while thanking the veterans for their service. Cartwright emphasized that he wanted to do anything he possibly could to ease the burden of all veterans who had “seen things we can’t imagine.” He noted that on average, 22 veterans take their own life every day. Thompson, from the NWTF, said, “These guys, when they first arrive, nobody is really saying anything. But later on into the weekend, they really open up. An event like this makes all the difference.”
Choctaw Island West Unit, just to the west of Arkansas City, is only opened for special hunts: Four youth deer hunts are scheduled annually, in addition to a youth-adult combo duck hunt (coinciding with one at the Freddie Black Choctaw Island WMA East Unit, between Arkansas City and the Mississippi River).
Ryan Daniel, a native of Sherwood and a veteran who is now a country music performer based in Nashville, said he attended this event to support what Cartwright and Freedom Defenders Outdoors were doing. He and his touring guitarist performed for the group over the weekend. Also, another sponsor provided each hunter with their own duck calls, and another gave each of them their own portable video cameras to wear and record their hunt.
The first of the disabled veterans weekend hunts was held two years ago at Warren Prairie WMA before moving to Choctaw Island West Unit last year, where lodging was closer. The AGFC’s Hooks said the event “turned out just like always. These guys are very appreciative of being able to have something like this, and our guys, we like working with people who are so appreciative.
“A lot of the people who volunteered this time, they indicated they were coming back next. Ryan Daniel said he’d be coming back again next, and the guy who videoed the event for Jared said he’s coming back. They all enjoyed it, they really did.”
Another focal point of the Choctaw Island West Unit is a marsh bird management program, where the biologists and land managers are doing intensive work for king rails and other birds that are endangered or species of greatest conservation need. Hooks said Choctaw Island is “the only place managed by a state agency in Arkansas, that I’m aware of, where there are breeding king rails.”