The California Waterfowl Association, a statewide nonprofit organization, has taken military veterans duck hunting on private lands for some five years with the goal of providing exceptional outdoor recreation opportunities to those who served our nation.
For the first time last Saturday, the CWA’s Veteran Hunt Program, in a joint effort with U.S. Fish & Wildlife, took 11 military veterans to hunt on public lands at the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, one of six refuges in the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which manages about 35,000 acres of wetlands and uplands in the Sacramento Valley for the public to enjoy activities like hiking, hunting, and bird watching.
“This was my first time duck hunting,” said Ret. Sgt. Tom Voss, of Paso Robles, who served in both the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I got my limit my first time out, and I Ioved it.”
Hunting on the local refuge is an important wildlife management tool that is recognized as a healthy, traditional outdoor pastime, refuge officials said.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Officer Garrett Span said Saturday’s hunt was the first time the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex hosted a CWA’s veterans’ program so that those who served in our nation’s military could “see the magic of a hunt on public lands.”
“This is something we’ve wanted to do for a long time, and it is something we have been working on for nearly two years,” Span said. “It took a lot of conversations, and a lot of meetings to figure out how to get this hunt in place.”
The group met Friday evening at the Colusa Casino & Resort, which provided the private dinner and room accommodations at no cost to the veterans or organizations.
“I also have to thank all the Refuge staff that came out to get this event together, and all the volunteer guides for coming out and giving up a day to help,” Span said.
Jeff Smith, CWA Hunt Program coordinator, said the non-profit organization started the hunting program for veterans in 2013, and that it has continued to grow.
“These events are mainly for veterans to have fun in a relaxing environment,” Smith said. “It’s also a lot of fun on our side too.”
But unlike previous hunts on private lands, which are typically one-time events, hosting a hunt at a national wildlife refuge encourages first-time and veteran duck hunters to return to public lands again and again.
“This hunt was unique because the hunters could easily return to hunt at anytime during the season,” Smith said. “It is definitely a privilege.”
The majority of veterans participating in Saturday’s hunt are Purple Heart recipients, having been injured while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Veterans came from as far way as Oceanside, and all live or are stationed in California.
Ret. U.S. Marine Sgt. Joel Ramirez, a financial planner from Grass Valley, took shrapnel to his face while serving in Iraq.
“It’s one of those million dollar wounds,” said Ramirez, lampooning “Forest Gump.” I now have a very permanent dimple.”
Unlike Voss, who got his limit of seven birds, Ramirez said he was happy with his take of several teal and a widgeon.
Although not his first time in a duck blind, Ramirez said the hunt was a wonderful adventure he wouldn’t soon forget.
“The Colusa Casino was awesome,” he said. “The CWA is awesome, and hunting at the refuge was definitely a treat.”
U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Major Eric Shaffer, currently stationed at Camp Pendleton, was injured from a mortar blast in his second of four tours of duty in Iraq. He also served in Afghanistan.
A veteran duck hunter from the east coast, Shaffer said he was extremely honored to participate in the hunt, and got his limit of seven birds before noon.
“It was really exciting, and it was fun,” Shaffer said. “The volunteers that came out to help us out were awesome, and the other service member I was with, too, was great. We had a great time.”
Before he returned to Camp Penddleton, Shaffer had his six Green-winged teals and one American Widgeon dressed at a Colusa shop.
Shaffer said he learned about the Veteran Hunt Program from another marine, and was looking forward to recommending the activity to other marines when he returns.
“I will definitely pass this on the same way it was passed to me,” Shaffer said.
About 20 volunteer hunting guides, including Randy Ladd, of Willows, and Don Rivera, of Williams, helped with the hunt, and other volunteers barbecued lunch for the group at the Colusa Refuge Check station on Ware Road.
“We have been looking forward to this ever since we were told us about it last February,” Ladd said. “It was awesome. We can’t wait to do it again.” ■