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Wounded Vets Find Therapy in the Woods

Dan Gilyeat, foreground, of Kansas City, Kan., and his guide Bill Eckert watch for deer during a recent hunt that honored wounded veterans. Gilyeat lost his leg during the Iraq War. (Kansas City Star - Brent Frazee)

Dan Gilyeat, foreground, of Kansas City, Kan., and his guide Bill Eckert watch for deer during a recent hunt that honored wounded veterans. Gilyeat lost his leg during the Iraq War. (Kansas City Star - Brent Frazee)

Bjerico Springs, Mo. — For Dan Gilyeat, a deer hunt Friday was just one more step on the path toward healing.

He has come a long way since that horrible day in 2005, when he was a staff sergeant in the Marines and was running a patrol to clear roadside bombs in Iraq.

The Marines located one of those explosive devices, cordoned it off and waited on a mountain ridge for a unit to detonate the bomb.

Once that happened, there was a sense of relief and an anticipation of unwinding back at base camp. But then came the moment that changed Gilyeat’s life forever.

“I can tell you exactly when it happened,” said Gilyeat, 41, who lives in Kansas City, Kan. “It was 6:10 p.m., July 3, 2005.”

As Gilyeat’s unit began to roll, an unseen bomb exploded under its armored Humvee. The explosion rocked the vehicle right under the seat Gilyeat was riding in, and he lost his leg.

But there were greater worries at first.

“I thought I was going to die,” Gilyeat said. “I thought I was going to bleed out.

“I started to panic, but I heard God say, ‘Stay calm. You’re going to get through this.’ ”

Gilyeat did get through that. He was walking again 26 days after the attack, thanks to a prosthetic leg and a never-give-up attitude.

And he dedicated himself to a new mission: Helping others who have experienced similar life-changing moments get through the tough times.

That’s one of the reasons he was at a secluded deer camp near Jerico Springs in the southwest part of Missouri over the weekend. He was participating in a managed hunt for wounded veterans set up by KAMO Adventures, a voluntary effort organized by a group of hunters dedicated to helping America’s wounded heroes.

The program was started by Stephen Johnson of Linwood, Kan., who wanted to honor his late father, an Army veteran, by helping wounded vets.

“My father was my hero,” Johnson said. “When they came and did a rifle salute at his funeral, it really touched me.

“We had hunted together, and I thought this would be a good way to give back.”

So Johnson put on a deer hunt for four wounded veterans in Kansas. The following year, the concept grew. Johnson received help from his friends, and KAMO Adventures was launched.

The event was moved to the Ozarks, where Johnson and three others - Bill Eckert of Leawood, landowner Wes Spinks and Joe Cushman of Lee’s Summit - have a hunting camp near Jerico Springs.

They expanded their offerings this year to include two spring turkey hunts, one fall fishing trip and two deer hunts — one during the regular firearms season and another during the antlerless season in December.

In additon to Gilyeat, three other wounded veterans took part in the hunt: CJ Larkin and Nick Beintema of San Antonio, who also lost legs in the Iraq conflict, and Mike Hall of Independence, Kan., who suffered severe burns from a roadside bomb.

Each of the veterans was treated to an all-expenses-paid trip. Plenty of food, including big steaks, shrimp and fish, was served. They went out on guided hunts. And perhaps best of all, they were able to get together and talk with their peers about what they have been through.

“It’s a good support group,” Larkin said. “We can get together and talk about our injuries and vent.

“You can meet other people who know what it’s like.”

Gilyeat travels the county as a volunteer for the Helping a Hero organization, counseling others who have been injured in combat and also talking with their families.

He hunted virtually all day Saturday and failed to even see a deer within range. But Larkin was fortunate.

Hunting in the evening with his guide, Dave Hambein, he shot an 8-point buck on Hambein’s land.

It wasn’t a trophy — but it looked like one to Larkin.

“This is a big deer to a guy who hunts where I do in south Texas,” Larkin said. “Really, though, I couldn’t care less about the antlers.

“I wanted the meat. I have a wife and two kids, with one on the way, and our family loves venison. This Missouri deer meat will taste real good.”